On Thursday, Feb. 7, Wait Chapel was filled with students and community members alike to hear from Ron Stallworth, the man behind Spike Lee’s most recent film BlacKkKlansman. Stallworth is known for his undercover police investigation into the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1970s, a story immortalized in his memoir Black Klansman, and then again in Lee’s 2018 film.
Invited here as a keynote speaker for Black History Month, Stallworth’s visit was co-hosted by the Department of Sociology and the Intercultural Center. After his speech, he stayed in Wait Chapel for a book signing.
Wearing a shirt that read “Inside a Black Man’s Mind,” and a headset microphone, Stallworth opted to walk freely around the front of Wait Chapel. He then set about walking the audience through the step-by-step version of what his experience infiltrating the KKK was like.
Stallworth’s investigation began in 1978 with a simple phone call as a response to an ad he saw in the paper for the Klan. According to Stallworth, the Klan had had an important role in Colorado politics in the 1920s and was trying to regain a hold in his area. After chatting with the Klan member, Stallworth gave his actual name and the undercover office’s phone number.
He recalled being surprised when the Klan called him back a few weeks later using his own name, but immediately saw the opportunity to gain more information. He spoke with his partner Chuck, who was white, and the two set off on their now-famous project to infiltrate the KKK. Chuck was Ron in person, Ron was Ron over the phone, and the Klan members never differentiated between the two.
Over the course of their investigation, Stallworth and his coworkers were able to expose Klan members in the military, thwart cross-burnings and ultimately prevent the KKK from gaining a foothold in Colorado again.
One of the most iconic moments of the movie is the scene where Stallworth applies to become an official member of the KKK. He speaks to David Duke, then the Grand Wizard of the Klan, who signs his membership card himself. Stallworth proceeded to pull out his wallet and show the audience his official Klan membership card that he still has to this day.
He concluded his talk with a reminder that the force of white supremacy is still prominent in the U.S. today.
“We don’t need to make America great again, America is already great,” said Stallworth. “You need to recognize what white supremacy is. It’s a venomous bile, and we need to clean it up.”
With that, the floor opened for questions, many of which related to the events in the movie. According to Stallworth, many of the conversations in the film were taken word for word from his memoir, with a few notable creative adjustments. Chuck’s character Flip became Jewish, and Stallworth had a love interest in the movie. However, the humor, said Stallworth, was straight from reality.
Senior Nic Andreou, the director of speakers for Student Union who organized the event, learned about Stallworth’s story from a speaker agency and was immediately hooked.
“Mr. Stallworth is an inspiring man because he showed courage in standing up for what was right,” said Andreou. “To him, making the world a better place was worth the risk of a dangerous undercover task.”
Jonathan McElderry, assistant dean of students and director of the Intercultural Center, said he was excited about having Stallworth as this year’s keynote speaker for Black History Month.
“We thought it would be important to share his story, especially in this day and age when we talk about race in our society a lot,” he said. “To hear about him integrating the Colorado police department and then infiltrating the KKK was something we thought was heroic and was a journey to success for us.”
McElderry also highlighted the importance of Stallworth’s address.
“I hope students are able to learn from his story, learn about the resilience he had to overcome the challenges that were put before him,” said McElderry. “I hope they are able to walk away with hope for change. Sometimes we don’t see change immediately, but it does happen eventually.”