“I bet you all thought you were gonna get John David Washington up here, but you got me,” Ron Stallworth began, prompting laughter with a joke about the actor who played him in last year’s BlacKkKlansman, within two minutes of his arrival on the Englert Theatre stage.
The 65-year-old former police officer whose story was the source for the Academy-Award nominated movie spoke on Wednesday, Jan. 23 as part of the University of Iowa Lecture Series. With a line forming in the bitter cold hours before doors opened, it was clear Stallworth was highly sought after for his seemingly-fantastical tale of how he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
During the lecture, Stallworth made explicit parallels to current government officials, calling for people to remove white supremacy from the federal government.
“Vote that idiot out of the White House. Secondly, vote that idiot Congressman out,” he said, referring to Donald Trump and Steve King respectively. “There is no excuse for what’s going on in our body of politics right now.”
The main focus of the event, however, was Stallworth’s own story. Propped up against the podium, Stallworth casually addressed the audience of over 700 without notes, treating the speech more like a casual conversation.
“How did a black man gain membership into the Ku Klux Klan, so much so that they wanted him to become the chapter president?” Stallworth posed to the crowd of over 700. He then launched into an animated, profanity-littered lecture that had the audience roaring in laughter at some points and dead-silent at others.
Stallworth’s wild journey began in 1978 when he noticed an ad listed in the newspaper to join the KKK. At the time, he was working as an undercover officer in the intelligence division of Colorado Spring Police Department, the only black officer there.
“I figured, what the hell,” he said.
After composing a letter peppered with racial slurs and laments about the “abuse of the white race,” Stallworth mailed it to the listed P.O. Box. To his surprise, a Klan representative called the undercover phone line within the next couple of weeks, inquiring further about Stallworth’s interest. After answering this man, Ken O’Dell, with more racism-filled lies, the two scheduled a face-to-face meeting.
“Obviously, because God blessed me with this beautiful ebony skin, I couldn’t meet him,” Stallworth noted. So, Stallworth hatched a plan: Find a white undercover cop to be his avatar. When he pitched the idea, others officers gave him dubious looks, asking, “Are you a crazy son-of-a-bitch or what?” he said. Not to be deterred, Stallworth convinced the police chief to sanction the operation.
What followed was seven-and-a-half months of investigative work, featuring discoveries of gay-bar bombing plans, cross-burning attempts and Klan members stationed in high-ranking positions. During this period, Stallworth established a relationship with Klan Grand Wizard David Duke over the phone, often gaining insight to prevent Klan marches nationwide. In fact, it was Duke who personally created the Klan membership card Stallworth carries with him to this day.
This dangerous ruse faced its only identity challenge when O’Dell noticed a discrepancy in Stallworth’s voice over the phone after meeting with Stallworth’s white counterpart, Chuck. Thinking quickly, Stallworth feigned a sinus infection, and O’Dell’s doubts were removed. He even began prescribing a home remedy.
“That’s a key to good undercover work,” Stallworth said. “If you have a strong story in the beginning, if you plant that seed deep in their minds, they will fight themselves to think otherwise. They will defend you.”
A highlight of the investigation, according to Stallworth, was standing up directly to Duke, who he paralleled to today’s Knights of the KKK leader, Thomas Robb, saying Duke was “smooth but a monster.”
Duke was in Colorado Springs giving a speech to Klan members, and Stallworth was begrudgingly assigned to protect him. Seeing an opportunity to gain the upper hand, Stallworth asked to take a photo with Duke and the Grand Dragon, Fred Wilkins. Angered to be pictured with a black man touching him, Duke tried to snatch away the photo, Stallworth stood firm and threatened to “kick his ass,” the very scenario white supremacists like Duke feared.
“David walked away very sullenly to his little group and proceeded to give them a message about white supremacy,” Stallworth recalled, “and I stood off to the side smirking because I had just destroyed it.”
The investigation ended when Stallworth was asked to be the KKK chapter president and the chief decided it was time to shut the operation down. However, when asked to shred all documents pertaining to the case, Stallworth hid notebooks detailing the research accumulated over the investigation. Putting his career on the line, he said, was worthwhile because “no one would believe me unless I had proof.”
“What I did was morally and ethically wrong,” he said. “You young people, don’t do something stupid like I did. I got away with it. I was lucky. Had they found out about it, my career would’ve ended right there on the spot. But they didn’t find out.”
In 2014, he transformed this evidence into a New York Times #1 bestselling memoir, Black Klansman. From there, screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee transformed the book into a six-time Academy Award nominated movie (including a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay).
Though no official arrests were ever made, Stallworth firmly believes that his investigation was a success, noting that “police departments tend to think within the box.” During the span of his intelligence-gathering, he prevented three domestic acts of terrorism; helped relocate two KKK members with high-security jobs that had access to nuclear weapons; and identified links between the Colorado white supremacy movement and various national “white supremacy idiots.”
When asked whether he ever considered halting this potentially threatening mission, his response was simple.
“I was a trained undercover cop for over half of my career. We don’t get embarrassed or scared … We never thought about backing out. You never give that edge to the bad guys. You make them fear you, you don’t fear them.”
At its core, however, the lecture was one of inspiration, intended to spur activism. Stallworth appealed to younger members of the audience, encouraging action and truth-seeking.
“Keep this in mind: When someone says you can’t do something, and you know that you’re on the right path, that your cause is right and true, follow your path,” Stallworth said. “Don’t let somebody tell you no.”