Note: Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote this column in 2006 based on an interview with Ron Stallworth, who, 12 years later, is the subject of Spike Lee's latest film, "BlacKkKlansman." In 1979, Stallworth was an intelligence officer with the Colorado Springs police department. He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, a hate group, and even developed a relationship with leader David Duke.
And now here's this week's episode of Great Moments in Black History.
The year is 1979. Jimmy Carter is in office, disco is on the radio and Ron Stallworth has just joined the Ku Klux Klan.
We are indebted to the Deseret Morning News, of Salt Lake City, for revealing this in an article earlier this month commemorating Mr. Stallworth's retirement from the Utah Department of Public Safety. Since then, the story has made MSNBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Co. and blogs from here to eternity.
And if you're wondering why the fuss, well . . . it's not every day that a black man becomes a Klansman.
The story goes as follows: In '79, Mr. Stallworth was an intelligence officer with the Colorado Springs police, tasked with gathering information on subversive groups. One day he sees a classified ad: The KKK is forming a chapter and looking for members. So he calls.
"This guy answered the phone," he told me last week in a telephone interview. "I told him I saw the ad and was interested. He asked me why. I told him I was a pure-blooded Aryan white man. I told him I was a victim of the Zionist Occupied Government because of ZOG's preference for mud people, meaning blacks or anybody that's not considered pure blood."
Mr. Stallworth's deft use of the buzzwords of hate excited the Klan man, who was, in his day job, a soldier at nearby Fort Carson. The two made plans to meet. Mr. Stallworth gave a physical description of himself, accurate except for the minor matter of melanin. After he got off the phone, he recruited a colleague who matched his description -- except for the minor matter of melanin -- and sent him in.
It worked. Mr. Stallworth filled out his application, paid his dues, became a Klansman. Some snafu delayed his membership card, though, so Mr. Stallworth went to the top to get it straightened out. "I called David Duke," he said.
Within a few days, Mr. Stallworth had his membership card, which he still carries. He says he handled Klan business by phone, sending in the white cop when face-to-face meetings were required. For a year, he said, he and Duke spoke once or twice a week. Once Mr. Stallworth asked Duke if he wasn't afraid of being infiltrated by undercover cops, or maybe some smart-aleck black man posing as white.
"He said, 'No, I'm not concerned about that because I can always tell when I'm talking to a nigger.' I said, 'How?' He said, 'The way they pronounce certain words or letters. Niggers tend to say the word 'are,' they say 'are-uh.' That's a dead giveaway. I can tell you're an educated white man because you don't talk that way."
I asked Duke about all this by email. The Klan's former bigot in chief, now president of something called the European American Unity and Rights Organization, professed no memory of Mr. Stallworth. "I don't believe we talked much, if at all," he wrote. The Klan he led, he said, was "legal and law-abiding." He points to the fact that Mr. Stallworth's investigation produced no arrests as proof.
Mr. Stallworth, though, says that as an intelligence officer his aim was not to make arrests but to gather information. He says his investigation did head off a number of cross burnings. And that two soldiers moonlighting as Klansmen found themselves transferred to cold and distant posts.
Here's the kicker: After a year, Mr. Stallworth's Klan contact called with the news that he, too, was being reassigned. He asked Mr. Stallworth to lead the chapter "because I had been a loyal and dedicated member."
Mr. Stallworth promised to get back to him. His bosses promptly shut off the phone, closed the investigation. His career in the Klan was over.