How a Black Cop Joined the KKK
ED GORDON, host:
Police officer Ron Stallworth was the perfect Ku Klux Klan member. He was loyal, enthusiastic; in fact, he was asked to lead a KKK chapter in Colorado where he lived. Stallworth was all the white supremacist group could ask for, except one thing, Stallworth is black. After a 30-year career in law enforcement, Stallworth is retiring. He's also reflecting on his most unique assignment. He told me why he became a KKK member and how he got away with it
Mr. RON STALLWORTH (Retired Police Officer): Yes. It occurred back in 1979 when I was a intelligence officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department. I was sitting in my office one day, and I was reading the newspaper; came across a want ad or a classified that said, Ku Klux Klan, for information. I eventually spoke with a gentleman over the phone responding to that ad, and the gentleman explained to me that he was starting a Klan chapter in Colorado Springs and was looking for new people.
So I told him that I was a white man, that I hated blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Asians; that I thought the white man had not gotten a fair deal in this country; I was really upset because my sister had dated a black guy and it offended me that his black hands had touched her white body; and as a result, I wanted to join the group and do what I could to put a stop to all of this nonsense.
He told me that I was the exact kind of person that they were looking for, and he was very enthusiastic about meeting with me.
GORDON: Talk to us about when they wanted to meet you, what you had to do, because obviously, you could not show up.
Mr. STALLWORTH: Well, as we talked further about my meeting, I told him -- we arranged to meet. It turned out this gentleman was a soldier at Fort Carson, Colorado. So I arranged to meet with him at a local bar that was near the military base there. He identified himself to me and I identified myself to him, except I obviously didn't tell him my skin color.
I then went to a white undercover narcotic officer, a good friend of mine, wired the officer up for sound, and sent him into the location; and that's how we conducted this investigation over the next eight or nine months or so; did most of the talking on the phone with these individuals; and when it came time for physical contact, the face to face meeting, I would send the white officer in posing as me.
GORDON: Interestingly enough, you also had communication, conversations with David Duke.
Mr. STALLWORTH: This chapter was under the auspices of David Duke's Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, out of New Orleans, Louisiana. So I had mailed in my application, and after I didn't receive any response in about a two, three week period, I decided to go directly to the horse's mouth, so to speak, and I called David Duke directly down in New Orleans. And the day I called, lo and behold, he answered the phone.
I introduced myself to him over the phone, told him that I was a new member of the Colorado Springs chapter. He thumbed through his paperwork, located my application, and said there had been a delay in getting things processed there, but he would personally see to it that mine got processed or sent back to me; and within a short period of time, I did receive it.
GORDON: Mr. Stallworth, I'm curious. You sit in a unique position in that being an African American you were really a participant in unfettered, unedited conversation with people who hold a certain belief. I'm curious what you found most chilling, most remarkable about those conversations.
Mr. STALLWORTH: I asked David Duke in one of my conversations, and I talked to him off and on during the course of this investigation. I asked him at one point, aren't you afraid of an undercover police officer infiltrating your organization or maybe a black man calling you up and pretending to be white? He said, no. He wasn't fearful of that at all, because he could always tell when he was talking to a black person. And I might add, he never used the term black. He always used the so called N word.
I asked him how he could tell that he was talking to a black person. His response to me was, well, I can tell that you're white because you don't talk like a black man. He said you talk like a very smart, intellectual white man, and I can tell by the way you pronounce certain words. I said, give me an example. He said, blacks tend to pronounce the word ARE, he said they pronounce it AR-RA. And he said, I could tell by listening to you that you're not black because you do not pronounce that word in that manner.
GORDON: Now, this was going on in the late '70s. You were gathering information on subversive groups. Have you kept close to the issue of the day? And how much have you seen, if so, changes between then and now?
Mr. STALLWORTH: The difference between 1979 and today is that the white supremacy movement has gone backwards in time, and they are now more violently oriented in terms of getting their objectives across. Skinheads and Neo-Nazis are commonly known to openly attack people who get in their way or don't agree with them and their agenda.
GORDON: When you talk to these men, and you realize that they were in the military, that a couple of them actually held very sensitive positions at the military, what was your feeling then?
Mr. STALLWORTH: The military is a microcosm of American society, so it really is not unusual that they would have Klan people and white supremacy people connected to them. And when I found out about the two people at NORAD, I found it interesting. I didn't realize that there were anybody at NORAD. To this day, I don't know which two in my files were the NORAD personnel. The military did not identify them to me. They just, with my permission, they checked my files and looked at my list of Klansmen that I had identified and the military people--they said that two of them were attached to NORAD in sensitive positions.
And I subsequently was invited to go up to NORAD and was taken there by two military investigators from the Air Force. There I was introduced to a gentleman who was introduced to me as the deputy commander of NORAD; and he thumbed through my list, focused on two names; made a phone call. And then I was told that within 24 hours, these two men would be stationed at the farthest most northern base that the U.S. military had, that the military was not going to tolerate them being in the positions they were in. And when I asked what position they were in, all I was told was that they're in very sensitive positions, and specifically I was told, you might say they had their fingers on nuclear triggers; and that's what was expressed to me.
GORDON: When you decided to go public and tell this story, was their concern on your part at all about retribution, about someone saying that you're making a mockery of our group, our organization, what we believe?
Mr. STALLWORTH: First of all, I've never concerned myself with what anyone thought about my activity, be they people within my profession or people outside of it, and I definitely wouldn't concern myself with anything coming from a racist bigot like a Klan member. To be honest with you, we were getting a lot of laughs out of it, the fact that these so called smart people were being fooled by one of the very individuals that they criticized and condemned as being intellectually inferior to them.
I even had my Klan certificate of membership signed by David Duke framed and hanging on the wall in my office over the past 15 years.
GORDON: Being a card carrying member of the KKK and having the opportunity to sit in a very unique position for an African American, as we discussed earlier, to hear unedited, unfettered versions of what many of these bigots think, when you look at race today, what did you learn from this?
Mr. STALLWORTH: Let me put it this way, it hasn't changed. To me, race is the single most divisive factor affecting American society. It's an issue that we are afraid of, that we shy away from; and quite frankly, it amuses me that we are so sensitive to the issue.
GORDON: Ron Stallworth, I couldn't agree with you more; and hopefully, people will begin to understand, as you suggest, the only way to overcome this is to really talk about it openly. We thank you for your time. Enjoy your retirement, and thanks for the story.
Mr. STALLWORTH: Thank you very much. I will.
GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. I'm Ed Gordon, this is NEWS AND NOTES.