In the fall of 1978, there were two Ron Stallworths involved in an undercover operation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan on behalf of the Colorado Springs Police Department. One was the department’s first-ever Black detective, who spoke to KKK Grand Wizard David Duke on the phone regularly. The other was a police officer named Chuck — called Flip Zimmerman in the movie — who used the name Ron Stallworth for all first-person interactions with the KKK. This partnership became the focus of the real Stallworth’s memoir, Black Klansman, as well as Spike Lee’s upcoming film BlacKkKlansman, out August 10.
It’s one of those too-wild-to-be-true-but-actually-is-true stories that abound in history, but not necessarily in history textbooks. In Stallworth’s own words, it was “one of the most fascinating, and unique, investigations” of his career. So far, BlackKklansman has been garnering stellar reviews for its provocative, clever use of history to make trenchant points about the current state of race relations.
But how did Stallworth get to that exact moment, so that one day this movie could be made about his life? In the 2018 memoir Black Klansman, Stallworth recalls the start of the mission in his own words. While scanning Colorado Springs’ two newspapers, a part of his daily routine, the then-29-year-old Stallworth’s eye caught on something unusual: a classified ad for the KKK, listing its base as Security, CO. Until that point, there was no known KKK presence in Security. Curious, Stallworth responded to the ad.
“I wrote a brief note to the P.O. box explaining that I was a white man interested in obtaining information regarding membership in the KKK and furthering the case of the white race,” Stallworth writes in his memoir. He signed his real name — Ron Stallworth — and provided the undercover phone number.
Stallworth could have used a fake name. After all, as an undercover investigator, he had a driver's license, IDs, and credit cards, all made out for another identity readily available. Stallworth simply never considered an investigation would stem from this simple outreach. “I was seeking a reply, expecting it would be in the form of literature such as a brochure,” Stallworth said. And that’s even if the ad had been legit. At first, Stallworth believed this blatant placement of such an inflammatory racist ad was nothing more than a feeble attempt at a prank.
So imagine Stallworth’s surprise when, two weeks later, he received a call from Ken O’dell, the organizer of the local KKK, asking if he wanted to join the cause. As you can see in the BlacKkKlansman trailer, Stallworth takes the call in stride, rattling off a litany of racist comments that he knew would ingratiate him in the KKK. He said he hated “Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, and Asians,” and made up a story about the anger he felt when his sister dated a Black man.
While Stallworth recognized the importance of infiltrating the KKK, he first had to convince his all-white bosses it was a worthy endeavor. “They felt like they couldn’t lose investigators to a bunch of nonsense like ‘men running around in sheets,’” Stallworth recalled to The Daily Beast. Stallworth convinced the department of the threat a heightened KKK presence posed to the community.
Obviously, Stallworth couldn’t be the one who showed up to meet O’Dell. Instead, a white narcotics detective on the force, called Chuck in the book (his real name isn’t revealed), goes in his stead. Stallworth continues to speak to the KKK representatives on the phone.
At one point, Stallworth found himself in a very tense position. Duke and Stallworth had been communicated via phone regularly by then. Then, Duke came to Colorado Springs, and Stallworth was assigned to be his bodyguard during one public appearance. “Here I was talking to David Duke, the Grand Wizard, on the phone; I was talking to Fred Wilkins, the Lakewood fireman who was the Colorado Grand Dragon or state leader on the phone; and I was talking to the local organizer who was a soldier at Fort Carson on the phone, and all of them were in the same room when I introduced myself to David Duke. And none of these three idiots recognized the fact that I was the voice of who they were talking to on the phone,” Stallworth told The Daily Beast.
Clearly, Stallworth was convincing in his role. The investigation went very well. Too well, almost. When the KKK asked Ron Stallworth (aka Chuck) to be the an organizer of the Colorado Springs chapter, the police chief called the investigation off. Stallworth’s investigation was fruitful: He discovered the KKK’s extensive ties to the U.S. military — two KKK members at NORAD controlled the triggers for nuclear weapons. He also prevented all cross burnings in Colorado Springs from occurring during his tenure at the Klan.
Though Stallworth’s boss told him to destroy the files associated with the case, Stallworth kept them – and eventually used them for his memoir. Today, Stallworth is 62 and lives in El Paso, TX. He only began speaking publicly about his undercover investigation after his retirement in 2006.