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The Real-Life 'Black Klansman' On Why His Story Still Resonates Today

Newsy interviewed former detective Ron Stallworth, whose memoir inspired the Oscar award-winning film "BlacKkKlansman."
Posted at 5:26 PM, Mar 07, 2019

"It's just a very gratifying moment for all of this to be happening. It's a very surprising moment, because I never imagined anything like this happening when I began this ride, writing this book. I just wanted to tell the story, and now look at it."

From 1978 to 1979, Ron Stallworth — the first black detective in Colorado Springs — was a card-carrying member of the KKK. 

He detailed his investigation of the hate group in his memoir, "Black Klansman." The story formed the basis for Spike Lee's film of the same name, which recently won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. 

"It's a very surreal moment to be in — to be on the Oscars stage. ... I'm very proud of the fact that this story was the story that put Spike Lee over the hump and got him his first Oscar."

Stallworth's investigation took place four decades ago, but the problems it touches on — from systemic racism and the rise of hate groups to the strained relationships between black communities and law enforcement — are problems that are still very relevant today.

"Anybody who thinks that the KKK would not be active 40 years later are living in a fantasy world — very naive. This group's been around since the late 1800s. It's a domestic terrorist group. They're not going anywhere. ...It's American homegrown terrorists — red, white and blue. And they may fall in the shadows occasionally and go underground occasionally, and basically not be prominent in the news. But they're always around. Always around."

The Southern Poverty Law Center's most recent report on U.S. hate groups shows that while the number of KKK chapters fell from 130 to 51 in the last two years, there is a record-high number of hate groups overall.

"KKK, Neo-Nazi, Alt-Right, Skinhead. They're all part of the same fabric. They all have the same basic beliefs. ...When you talk about evolution, the alt-right is doing something that the KKK doesn't necessarily do, and that's the alt-right doesn't sport white hoods and white sheets."

"The alt-right people are more clean cut, well-dressed, very intelligent, very well educated. In other words, they pattern themselves after David Duke. And that's what has evolved is the image that they're portrayed. And they're trying to become. They're not trying — they are becoming more politically engaged."

Beyond his investigation of the KKK, at the heart of Stallworth's story is the relationship between black communities and police. 

Years after his time at the Colorado Springs Police Department — where Stallworth himself faced prejudice — the former detective speaks frequently on the intersection of race and law enforcement. 

"Black cops are part of the community that they serve. They're also part of their ethnic community. I was a black man in America wearing a blue uniform and a badge and a gun enforcing the laws of the state of Colorado and upholding the Constitution of the United States. That doesn't mean that I was not aware of everything going on around me where the black community was concerned and where race relations were concerned. Because I, as a member of the race, was mixed into it as well." 

Stallworth says that black cops often face criticism from people within their own community.

"BlacKkKlansman" itself was criticized by director Boots Riley for portraying law enforcement as heroes, but Stallworth — who has voiced support for Black Lives Matter — argues the work of black police shouldn't be dismissed.

"If you have a systemic evil in an organization, like racism, one of the best ways to fight it is to become part of the organization — fight it from within. And that's what I was doing back in the day. That's where a lot of people are doing these days. So, people who accuse us of not being part of our community, not understanding what's going on, they couldn't be more wrong."