'Black Klansman', the Memoir

In his memoir of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, Ron Stallworth writes like a police officer, concerned with procedurals and clearly indicating every step taken.

Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime
Ron Stallworth

Flatiron Books

Jun 2018


Hate groups and the crimes they commit are not, of course, solely a phenomenon of the 21st century. The names developed to identify these groups, like alt.right or neo-con, might seem benign and almost funny to younger generations, like directions to follow on a computer keyboard to insert emoticons. By creating new terms to deal with eternally horrible and horrifying mentalities in our culture, we cushion the blows of these hate groups that have found a new and comfortable platform in these times. From the current President of the United States down through all sorts of elected officials and profoundly angry pontificators, unashamed hate has a forum in which to spread, like an oil tanker spill, coating everything in its path with sludge.

In this environment, Ron Stallworth's 2014 memoir Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime has found a refreshingly new life. Spike Lee's 2018 film adaptation, BlacKkKlansman, added a love interest to the Stallworth character (John David Washington), and the white colleague chosen to portray the African-American Stallworth (Adam Driver) as he infiltrated the Colorado Klan meetings is Jewish. Lee made other interesting artistic choices in adapting Stallworth's story (particularly the stunning conclusion) but they were necessary to flesh out this story.

Stallworth has written an engaging narrative here, but it's a little thin. By no means is it insubstantial, but the reader gets the sense that there's more to the journey he takes from life as a seemingly aimless young 19-year-old in 1972 to a man who helps expose the workings of David Duke and Ku Klux Klan.

In the opening interview section, Stallworth is told by his prospective employer that he should be the Jackie Robinson of the cadet recruit program. He needs to be prepared for anything and everything. He answers all their question and indicates that he can do anything they ask of him:

"What I didn't tell them was that as a child… we had to literally fight for our self-respect."

From his early days on the force, Stallworth is faced with opposition. He won't cut his large Afro-styled hairstyle, so his regulation hat (one and a half sizes too small) sits atop his hair. Stallworth falls in love with the life of a cadet, the grunt work, and the regulated expectations. By his 21st birthday in 1974, Stallworth is sworn in as a police officer for the city of Colorado Springs. Ten months into his official life as a patrolman, following the standard obligations of writing tickets, filling out paperwork, and investigating random crimes, Stallworth gets his first undercover assignment. He is to infiltrate a speech and rally featuring Kwame Turner, the Black Panther leader known in the '60 as Stokely Carmichael:

"All of these people gathered for Carmichael's speech had an inherent dislike for the police, and it was only exacerbated when a black police officer was concerned… In their eyes I was a 'traitor' to the cause for which… Stokely had dedicated his life…"

Stallworth expands on Carmichael here, and the sensations experienced while attending the rally. While this was definitely a big part of his story, the reader gets the sense that a narrative focused specifically within the world of a black man infiltrating a black world could have been stronger than what we have in Black Klansman. Here we have Stallworth, "…proud of being both black and a cop… proud of my blackness without being angry." It's this world of the Black Power movement that surfaced in the wake of Martin Luther King's murder and grew stronger in the '70s, that clashed with a man like Stallworth, who was in that world but not of it.

There's certainly logic in Stallworth's positioning of the Black Panther story prior to the initial infiltration of the Klan. The Panthers and the Klan were opposite sides of the ideology spectrum. Did they share similar approaches in their separatist extremism perspectives? Is that what Stallworth is trying to say here? Perhaps the message is that justice and equality are the only worlds to which he has an obligation to connect.

By the time Duke is introduced in this memoir, things become more compelling -- and frightening. The picture Stallworth paints of this smooth, nicely-coiffed All-American white man with his porn-star moustache and his initial entrance into the national media landscape is powerfully evoked:

"He was always well groomed… articulate… highly educated… Publicly he would not talk about hate but … heritage and history… He spawned a new racism for the right-wing masses, one that melded antipathy to blacks and other[s]… to general dissatisfaction with government and fear of an ever-changing and complex world."

The picture of Duke is supplemented by profiles of his minions, like Fred Wilkens, a local firefighter and state organizer for the Klan. Stallworth learns that the initial purpose for Klansmen wearing hoods and burning crosses went back to the 1869 origins of the Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. The hoods and crosses were used to provoke superstitious beliefs of recently released slaves. The mid-to late 20th century Klan revival drew from white prison populations and other often disturbed populations. Stallworth was able to use his speaking abilities to seduce Duke over the phone, and Stallworth's white colleague Chuck poses as Stallworth in real life. No matter how loose, unstructured and juvenile membership in the Ku Klux Klan seemed, it was surprisingly large. Like all sorts of poisonous insects existing and multiplying under rocks, hate group contingents heavily supplied with artillery could be found virtually everywhere.

How does one deal with a "new" Klan that became a political party in the '70s and remains alive (under different monikers) today? Stallworth notes that by 1923, there were an estimated 45,000 Klan members in the Colorado area. In fact, Stapleton Airport was named for a past Mayor of Denver (from 1923-1947) who also turned out to be a Klan leader. Stallworth notes that the political leanings of Duke in the late '70s (a self-proclaimed "Conservative Democrat") did not change to Republican for another ten years:

"His views were more suited for an America that existed during the years of the Eisenhower presidency (1953-1961), a period when white dominance in America was the norm and the Klan literally ruled communities across the South."

Again, hate groups and the atmosphere that developed them in America have never gone away. Stallworth repeats a few times a family story of a relative seeing a Klansman in full regalia and calling him "some clown". It certainly rings true, but readers might see it as dismissive of the strengths the Klan had then and still has, no matter its outward appearance or the names it uses for identification.

There's a surprising degree of humor in Black Klansman that might strike some readers as alarming. Not only are the Klansmen clowns, but article five in their "Personal Code" dictates that they don't discuss Klan affairs with undercover police officers. Stallworth also points out the hypocritical irony that while the Klan hated the Catholic Church, it didn't prevent them from stealing a serenity prayer for their purposes ("God give us true Whitemen!") Stallworth vividly describes D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation and how its horrifying stereotypes in 1915 still hold sway over the ignorant and misguided.

As the story in Black Klansman develops, we get a clearer picture of Stallworth's stunning bravery. He becomes Duke's bodyguard, Stallworth and the white Stallworth (his colleague) both attend the same Klan induction ceremony. Stallworth manages to take a Polaroid picture with Duke, touch him, and the significance of the moment doesn't go unnoticed:

"I looked at that Polaroid developing and thought of my spiritual ancestors over the link of time… who had fought… against the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan over the years. They had lost because they had not been in a position of control…"

Other such incongruities of the Klan surface. They professed to be extremely American, but they connected themselves with such leaders as the American Nazi Party's George Lincoln Rockwell, whose political ideology was more Socialist than Capitalist. Black Klansman works best when Stallworth details that no matter what world he encountered, he had to stay true to his perspectives about justice. He has to tell Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leader of the Civil Rights Movement from back in Martin Luther King's day, that he's being used for the wrong reasons in a local white on black murder case:

"I stood off to the side and watched… a 'clown' show. The most clownish part of this show was watching… members of the congregation running their 'con' on a venerable figure of our collective history as black people. He deserved better."

In the end, after the undercover investigation of the Klan reaches a "no turning back" point, all evidence of the local Colorado investigation is ordered destroyed. Stallworth, however, takes home some of the evidence. Stallworth notes in his Afterword that he has written reports, books, and magazine articles "…on the correlation between so-called gangster rap music and street gang culture," a fact that is probably best understood in a separate context. It's very clear how Stallworth wants us to feel about Duke and the Klan as we leave this book:

"The white nationalist, nativist politics that we see today were first imagined and applied by David Duke during the heyday of his Grand Wizardship… This hatred has never gone away…"

There are many stories in Black Klansman: identity as a police officer and a proud black man in the '70s, infiltration of the Klan and how hate groups have never been eliminated in America, and the many ways people have of manipulating truth for their own purposes. Stallworth writes like a police officer, concerned with procedurals and clearly indicating every step taken. At its best, Black Klansman serves as a gateway to examining all the ways hate was nurtured, supported, ignored, sustained, and how its presence today is as dangerous as it ever was.

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