Ron Stallworth’s memoir, BlacKkKlansman, about his time as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, has received a lot of attention in the last year thanks to the Academy Award nominated Spike Lee film of the same name. I was waiting to write this review until I had watched the film and now I wish I hadn’t because I am so tempted to just compare the two. All I will say is the film is very entertaining and well acted but it takes a lot of liberties with the true events in an effort to make things more suspenseful and dramatic. One of the things I enjoyed about Stallworth’s book, and the more true retelling of the events, was how utterly stupid and gullible the members of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan were.
“The phone call ended, and we all started laughing. First they got their ideas about how to light a cross from a James Bond movie, and now they were bragging about secret handshakes. It was as if Dennis the Menace were running a hate group.”
If you aren’t familiar with the plot of BlacKkKlansman Colorado Detective Ron Stallworth was scanning the local paper for anything that could cause problems in his city. When he sees an advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan he writes to receive more information. Ron uses his real name because he didn’t think things would progress past getting some literature on the hate group. Instead the local organizer, Ken, reaches out to Ron on the phone and invites Ron to a meeting. Ron gets permission to use a fellow undercover officer, a white man, for in person meetings with Klan members but continues the ruse on the phone. He mostly chatted with Ken but also developed a relationship with grand wizard David Duke as well.
“As undercover investigators we would never have challenged Ken, who was—I can’t stress this enough—a total idiot. We stroked his ego, made him feel like a great leader. He would never be suspicious of someone who thought he was doing a great job.”
In the movie the Klan is instantly suspicious of the white Ron Stallworth and that wasn’t the case. At all. Ron was instantly welcomed by the Colorado Springs Klan; he quickly earned their trust and was able to discover the location of an upcoming cross burning, which he was then able to prevent. His close relationship with Ken also gave him access to the Klan membership files which led to the removal of two high ranking officials from NORAD. In a matter of months Ron became the front runner to replace the local organizer but the investigation was abruptly closed because the chief of police worried it would be a PR nightmare.
While the movie makes things very thrilling and high stakes that wasn’t the case in real life but that is actually to the story’s benefit. The whole thing is just bonkers. These people didn’t even know Ron was a black man until decades later! Ron was just a regular guy who saw an opening into one of the most pervasive terrorist organizations in the world and exploited it. Stallworth is not the best writer; he is a bit stilted but it is forgivable since writing is not his primary vocation and overall I enjoyed this immensely.