While he was the first African American detective working in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s, Ron Stallworth conducted an undercover investigation where he infiltrated the local Ku Klux Klan chapter and eventually held phone conversations with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.
Years after he retired, Stallworth wrote about his experiences. Now his memoir, Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, is a Spike Lee film garnering critical acclaim this awards season. Stallworth, 65, told his story to a crowd of about 450 people on Wednesday in the Rion Ballroom of the Reitz Union.
The event, cosponsored by the Reitz Programming Board and the Black Graduate Student Organization, was one of several taking place this week in celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
During a moderated Q&A facilitated by English professor Mark Reid of the UF Center for African Studies, Stallworth discussed police brutality, white supremacy and his experiences with racism as the first African American police officer of the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Reid mentioned the similarities between David Duke and Richard Spencer, who both present themselves as well-mannered and intelligent. Stallworth said that in the 1970s, Duke was changing the face of the KKK to make the group more palatable.
“A white supremacist is a white supremacist is a white supremacist,” Stallworth said, “I don’t care what organization they represent, how they dress or what their profession might be.”
Stallworth urged the audience to “infiltrate hate” and fight racism whenever they see it happening, even if it makes them unpopular. “When you see wrongdoing going on, don’t be afraid to stand up to it.”
Stallworth said that the millennial generation is going to make a big difference in this world. “You young people are going to change the world that my generation and the one before me messed up,” he said, “but you can only do that if you have a belief in something you’re passionate about and that you’re willing to take a stand for.”
“We chose Ron Stallworth because of his ground-breaking accomplishments during the Civil Rights movement,” said Reitz Programming Board Talent Committee directors Alana Gomez and Brooke Faer. “We thought he had a great story to tell in accordance with the Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations being hosted this week.”
Junior graphic design major Briyana Butler skipped class to hear Stallworth speak.
“After seeing the movie, I didn’t even realize Ron Stallworth was a real person, but once I saw he was coming I was like ‘I’d love to hear him recount those experiences,’” Butler said, “he’s really badass.”