"Black Klansman" Ron Stallworth on His First Undercover Assignment

Ron Stallworth, author of Black Klansman, was the first black detective in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department. The following is an excerpt from his book detailing his first undercover assignment. 

Ron Stallworth
12-minute read

Immediately following my swearing-in ceremony and receiving my formal commission, I marched over to Arthur’s office and showed him my brand-new city certificate of employment and department identification card signifying my minutes-long status as a full-fledged cop. I then repeated my obnoxious declaration: “Now that I’m legal will you make me a narc?”

He laughed at my audacious persistence and said, “You need to put in at least two years in uniform before consideration. That’s just the rules.” 

Little did I know that my luck would change much more quickly.

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For ten months I went about the business of being a patrolman: writing traffic citations, collaring drunks in public, investigating burglaries, robberies, domestic disputes, etc. It wasn’t exactly what you’d find on a TV police drama, but for me it was all new and exciting. I still hollered at Arthur each time I saw him with my call “Make me a narc,” and one day I got more than a smile and a shake of the head from him.

On that day Arthur asked me, “How’d you like to work an undercover assignment with us, Ron?”

As you can imagine, I didn’t hesitate. “Yes!”

Now was my time to prove my professional mettle to them, and it was to be against one of the foremost leaders of the civil rights movement, a man I had watched numerous times as a teenager on the late-night news agitating the system and provocatively confronting the forces I now represented.

“It’s Stokely Carmichael. The Black Panther leader is in town giving a speech. We’re concerned about the impact he might have. What he might say. We need a black person to go in because our white guys won’t fit in very well.”

Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, was the former prime minister of the Black Panther Party and an iconic contemporary member of the civil rights pantheon that included Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Carmichael belonged to and later became leader of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which staged sit-in protests at white-owned businesses that refused service to black citizens in the South. He is the man commonly credited in 1966 with coining the term “Black Power”—the fist-pumping, chest-thumping revolutionary clarion call for black empowerment. The protests associated with the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement are direct descendants of Carmichael’s message.

Arthur explained to me that Stokely was contracted to give a speech at a club called Bell’s Nightingale. The Nightingale was frequented by blacks, with late-night dancing and live bands. Bell’s was in the central part of town—just off of the downtown strip.

We had two black nightclubs in Colorado Springs (Bell’s and the Cotton Club), and they were popular in their own right. Duncan’s Cotton Club was known as a hangout for pimps and prostitutes—as a police officer we always were told to keep our eye on the Cotton Club, especially on GI payday. Bell’s wasn’t on the main stretch of downtown but on a side street, so it had less obvious disreputable traffic, you might say.

Although Stokely’s speech was open to the public, tickets were set at a reasonable price and were required for admission.

It was presumed that the bulk of Colorado Springs’ finest black citizenry, as well as its youthful revolutionaries, would show up in force, hoping to bask in Stokely’s feverish antiwhite/problack aura and to taste his past glory, when his words struck fear in the hearts and minds of the highest elements of America’s white political power structure.

To the police department, the potential outcome was unpredictable, and so concerned were my superiors that they sought me out after my years of vocally advocating for a chance to be an undercover operative.

Now was my time to prove my professional mettle to them, and it was to be against one of the foremost leaders of the civil rights movement, a man I had watched numerous times as a teenager on the late-night news agitating the system and provocatively confronting the forces I now represented.

On the night of the speech, I reported to the basement office of the Narcotics Unit dressed in casual clothes suitable for an evening of 'nightclubbing.'

The department still had enough respect that Stokely’s rhetorical powers of persuasion would be formidable enough that they wanted an “inside” observer to his performance and the audience response to his message. They were concerned that his message would resonate to such a degree that it might rekindle the emotional fervor of the local black masses and possibly lead to a violent response. Although it was never spoken, I knew Arthur and the department brass were worried Stokely would ignite another city—our city—on fire, much like the 1967 riots. My assignment was to monitor his speech, gauge audience reaction, and report on possible response procedures the department should take steps to enact to prevent any trouble.

On the night of the speech, I reported to the basement office of the Narcotics Unit dressed in casual clothes suitable for an evening of “nightclubbing.” I wore a leisure suit with bellbottoms. I had to have a blazer on to conceal my gun. Flared, open collar—very Saturday Night Fever.

While I was being taped up with a wireless body transmitter so my surveillance backup officers could listen in on my end of the conversation, I was bombarded by various members of the unit with what-if scenarios, which was my crash course in undercover work.

What if the suspect offers you some cocaine to snort, how do/should/would you respond?

Answer: Do not take. Say you’re not in the mood right now, but thanks. Be cool, but ask around who’s selling. If we can make a drug bust later, all the better.

What if you’re asked to smoke a joint, how do/should/would you respond?

Answer: Same as your response to cocaine.

What if someone pulls a gun on you, how do/should/would you respond?

Answer: This one is a bit more complicated. The main thing if someone draws a gun on you, which has happened to me on a few occasions, is to always remember you are wired for sound. Officers are listening to you and you’re not alone. Start communicating to the officers. Say to your assailant if you can, “Oh, that’s an interesting gun you got pointed at my chest. What kind of gun is that? A blue steel Magnum with six bullets in it?” That way you’ve described to your listening officers that a gun is involved in the situation, it’s being pointed in your direction, and trouble has arrived.

Only as a last resort should you take matters into your own hands. Stay calm, there is backup on the way.

I felt like Daniel entering the lion’s den, food waiting to be recognized and consumed.

Other officers were schooling me on the various prices for different quantities of drugs and giving me a crash course in the underground language of the drug scene. It was obvious the narcs were anxious about an inexperienced brother officer going into an unknown environment.

Arthur, meanwhile, was counting one hundred dollars of official city funds and recording the serial numbers in anticipation of a drug transaction possibly taking place, which might result in an arrest. After going through this ritual, I was given a receipt to sign, transferring the money into my official custody and making me responsible for its expenditure and/or return.

I was experiencing a massive case of sensory overload, which, for me, was very exhilarating. I was a virtual human sponge, soaking up every bit of information that my mind, young both in age and police experience, could absorb, while trying to retain as much as possible, though not necessarily succeeding.

My final marching orders were to concentrate on Stokely Carmichael and his speech, with emphasis on the audience response to his message. I was told if the opportunity presented itself I was to feel free to make a drug purchase, as long as I was able to somehow identify the seller. As a new cop accustomed to strict rules of conduct governing all manner of behavior, I asked what was to me arguably the most important question of all: Could I order an alcoholic drink while in the bar?

Everyone laughed at the naive innocence of my question—one I later learned was common to newly assigned members of the Narcotics Unit—but Arthur eased my concern by telling me one mixed drink or beer was acceptable, as long as it was in keeping with the need of the investigation. I should always be aware that what I did and said would be used in court, and any consumption of a substance thoroughly looked into during a trial.

I was given an unmarked car, with a portable radio, and made my way to Bell’s Nightingale. In the early evening hours, there was already an overflow of parked cars. Clearly Stokely’s much anticipated talk was going to be a local success. After paying my three-dollar entry fee for the program, “Stokely Carmichael Speaks,” I made my way through the crowd. I started to get the standard “stomach butterflies” knowing that I was operating in an undercover capacity, not to mention I had already recognized several people whom I had, over the course of my young career,cited for various traffic offenses. I also recognized several of our local “ghetto celebrities,” pimps, their prostitutes, and drug dealers. A couple of the younger, more “thuggish” elements were also within eyesight. I felt like Daniel entering the lion’s den, food waiting to be recognized and consumed.

To them I was not a 'black' man, but rather a police officer who happened to be black.

All of the people gathered for Carmichael’s speech had an inherent dislike for the police, and it was only exacerbated when a black officer was concerned. To them I was not a “black” man, but rather a police officer who happened to be black. In their eyes I was a “traitor” to the cause for which a black revolutionary brother like Stokely had dedicated his life and was here to speak about. Where black brothers like Stokely  were intent on bringing down the white man—a “devil” in their eyes—and his racist-centered society and dominant government structure, brothers like me were caught in a netherworld common to black officers, a “phantom-like” void in which we were too black for the white community we served as well as some of our fellow officers, and too “blue,” for the color of the uniform we wore, for our fellow “soul brothers” steeped in the cause of civil rights/social revolution beneficial for the black community. But a good many of our fellow citizens of color did not tend to view black officers through the jaded lens of suspicion or consider us lost sheep who had strayed from the herd. Rather they saw they shared with black police officers the commonality of a shared life experience built on a background of biased degradation based on skin pigmentation and other social factors.

But to black revolutionaries like Stokely, because I and others like me had chosen to wear a badge, gun, and blue uniform representative of the forces of an “oppressive” (their point of view) government and enforce what they perceived to be naturally un-just laws specifically designed to work against those victimized by that oppression, we had become modern-day “house slaves”—house n------, each of us a black Judas who had chosen to collaborate with the governmental “massa” (master) and enforce the “white man’s justice.” We had become slaves to the “system,” the white man’s “boy,” as I was called on many occasions during my career by my self-proclaimed black “brothers.”

Now, I was proud of being both black and a cop. I was proud of my blackness without being angry. I was in awe of Stokely because he was a figure of the civil rights movement. People like him (MLK, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Recy Taylor, John Lewis, and so forth) made life better for people like me. But now here I was being thrust into this unique situation, and I had no qualms because I could differentiate being a cop who was black and a black man in white America.

Now, I was proud of being both black and a cop. I was proud of my blackness without being angry.

The club was peppered with a smattering of whites, those “wannabe” blacks known as “wiggers”—“white n------”—by today’s hip-hop community.

I happened to find a table near the back of the bar with a lone occupant, a fairly attractive German lady. With her permission, I took a seat with my back to the wall, a common strategic move by undercover operatives—and police in general—having a view of the entire location in case an altercation erupted. From this position, I also took note of the closest exit in case I had to make a hasty escape.

She welcomed my company and eagerly struck up a conversation in heavily German accented English. Her conversation was flirtatious in nature and put me in a slightly awkward position because I had just started to date the woman who, five years later, would become my wife. Although we were not yet in any committed relationship, I knew in my heart—though I hadn’t told her yet—I wanted to pursue the relationship as far as it and she would allow. In spite of this, the “dog” in me—all men have a little “dog” in them where women are concerned, especially if they are as I was, a fraction over twenty-one years of age, single, with no personal obligations of any kind—was somewhat flattered by the German woman’s interest in me. I, however, was far too disciplined and dedicated to my goal to allow her flirtatious interest in a possible amorous adventure to derail my purpose. That was a line I had no intention of crossing.

I ordered a rum and Coke, my first alcoholic drink while on duty, and graciously refilled what she was drinking. I redirected her conversational interest in me to the topic of drugs. She offered to “score” (buy or introduce me to someone with drugs for sale) some marijuana or cocaine for us to enjoy, but before I could delve deeper into this prospect, Stokely Carmichael was introduced to a rousing standing ovation complete with the symbolic raised, closed fist of the Black Power segment of the civil rights movement and shouts of “Right on, brother” and “Black Power.” The crowd was fully in the moment with him. I, however, while clapping, was busy laughing at my female companion joining in with the crowd in her thick German accent yelling “Black Power” with a raised white fist.

Stokely’s talk was typical of the many he had given over the years. It was laced with references to his philosophical beliefs in Pan-Africanism, an ideological movement that encouraged worldwide economic, social, and political solidarity among people of the African diaspora. It was—is—a belief based on a shared historical legacy united by a common enemy: the white race. Coupled with his belief in a Marxist revolutionary overthrow of the American political system, Stokely’s message was of great interest to the black masses and concern to my superiors.

He was like a master puppeteer, pulling the strings on our emotions and leading us down a path that we probably never knew we wanted to tread.

Stokely was dynamic, mesmerizing. The alternating effect of his pitch and tone could raise the audience into a fevered frenzy or bring them down, as if they were listening to a soothing Sunday morning sermon. He was like a master puppeteer, pulling the strings on our emotions and leading us down a path that we probably never knew we wanted to tread.

I found myself—several times—caught up in the rapture of his reasoning against the very governmental institution I represented and the white people I generally looked on with fondness and good intentions. When these occasions occurred and I found myself enthusiastically clapping and yelling “Right on, brother,” I had to quickly remind myself that we were in adversarial roles and sincerely hope and pray that I was a good enough undercover actor that my surveillance officers listening to the wireless body transmitter would not be able to detect in my voice the tone of agreement with and acceptance of his logic.

Stokely, with the audience, me included, in the palm of his rhetorical hand, blasted the white man and the white race by stating that throughout their history they had understood only one thing exceptionally well—the power that comes from the barrel of a gun. He then called for the black masses in America to arm themselves to prepare for the “BIG” revolution that was soon to come. This one statement received, perhaps, the greatest applause response from the crowd and the loudest verbal affirmation in the form of “Right on, brother” and “Black Power.”

At the end of his nearly forty-five-minute presentation, Stokely was given a standing ovation and further shouts of black affirmation from the crowd. His Bell’s Nightingale hosts then formed a receiving line for him to meet and greet his many admirers and those who simply wanted to touch a living, breathing piece of contemporary black history. I stood in the line and slowly made my way toward him. When I finally got within reach, I was struck by the regal grandeur of his physical being.

Up close, Stokely stood approximately six foot four with flawless cocoa-colored skin. As I shook his hand he gave me one of his warm, infectious smiles with the whitest, most flawless teeth I had ever seen. I thought to myself, This is a pretty good-looking man.

I had no qualms because I could differentiate being a cop who was black and a black man in white America.

As we shook hands, I asked him if he truly believed an armed conflict between the black and white races was inevitable. He squeezed my hand tighter and pulled my face closer to his, eyes quickly darted around the room as he whispered, “Brother, arm yourself and get ready because the revolution is coming and we’re gonna have to kill whitey. Trust me, it is coming.”

He then pulled back and thanked me for coming to hear him speak. He wished me well, as I did him, and my first undercover assignment and brush with history came to an end.

I left the nightclub and headed back to the station with my team. We debriefed, and I told them what took place inside. They had been listening, so they knew what Stokely had said, but I talked about the atmosphere. How it was just electric, exciting, but not angry despite the content of the speech. He was not inciting immediate violence. I filed the necessary reports and went home that night feeling exhilarated.

At that moment my professional life could not have been better. I had worked my way up to become a uniformed patrolman on a special assignment with the narcotics unit. In three months’ time I would officially become an undercover narcotics detective, the first black in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department and, as I later learned, the youngest—by about a month.

So I began my undercover career investigating the Black Panthers, but now it was time to go after the other side of the coin. The Klan had called, after all.

Black Klansman was published by Flatiron Books in 2018. Reprinted with permission.