Ron Stallworth doesn't view himself as a hero. The retired black police detective said going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in 1978 "was just doing my job."
However, Stallworth, whose audacity inspired the recent film "BlacKkKlansman," clearly merits the title, say leaders at Beth El Synagogue, which has invited Stallworth to speak at its annual "Heroes Among Us" forum Oct. 25.
"I wrote about my experience to tell my unique story," said Stallworth, in a recent phone interview. "I didn't know it would ignite a national conversation."
Stallworth was the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police force in 1978. Working in the undercover investigation unit, he managed to dupe Klan leaders into thinking he was a white guy, gaining Klan membership and ultimately an offer to head the local chapter.
His story of combating racism and violence with such audacity captured the attention of Beth El, which for several years has showcased national speakers reflecting the courageous work of people in the military and public service.
"We try to tap the pulse of popular culture and bring in someone whose story plugs into it and who can ignite a conversation in the community," said Rabbi Avi Olitzky, of the St. Louis Park synagogue.
Stallworth's story put the spotlight on behaviors and beliefs that have not gone away, Olitzky said, and are on the rise.
It began in 1978 when, as a police investigator in Colorado Springs, Stallworth saw a KKK classified advertisement with a post office box listed. He replied with a short note, saying that he hated "anybody who wasn't a pure white Aryan like I was."
His desk phone rang a few weeks later with a KKK recruiter on the other end. Stallworth's hate-filled response to his questions apparently brought swift admiration.
The risky eight-month Klan investigation proceeded, with Stallworth being the voice of the Klan member on the phone and a fellow detective who was white doubling for him at Klan events in person. The investigation revealed Klan members in high places, including the military, and also where cross burnings were being planned.
When Klan members asked Stallworth to be their chapter president, however, the investigation was halted, he said. Ron "disappeared" — as did the story for the next 20 years. But Stallworth kept his KKK membership card.
"The thing I'm most proud of is no black person was hurt; there were no cross burnings during the nearly eight-month investigation," he said.
Stallworth went on to work as an investigator in police departments in Wyoming and later Utah, retiring in 2006. His 2014 book, "Black Klansman," caught the attention of director Spike Lee, and the film was released to critical acclaim last summer. "BlacKkKlansman" was awarded the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
Suddenly the retired police officer is traveling around the country, being interviewed by journalists, sometimes along with Lee.
"It's a little overwhelming at times," he said. "I'm trying to adjust to this newfound celebrity."
Stallworth said he saw the film version of his story twice and "loved it."
He particularly appreciated how his experience with the hooded robes 40 years ago is juxtaposed with race relations today. The film, for example, ends with white nationalists marching during the deadly 2017 Charlottesville riot.
"Racism is alive and well in this country," said Stallworth. "It hasn't gone away. Don't get hung up on labels. Nazi. KKK. Alt-right. They are all the same. They hate blacks, Jews."
"Don't be afraid to speak" if you run into hate speech or actions, he said.
Stallworth will speak at the 7 p.m. "Heroes Among Us" event, which is a dialogue with the audience, said Olitzky. All of the speakers over the years had a connection to the military or civilian protection, he said. Tickets can be purchased at Beth El's website, besyn.org.
Some event proceeds will fund Beth El's work supporting the Minnesota National Guard. Each year it adopts a guard unit and ships monthly care packages filled with items requested by the troops.
Olitzky hopes Stallworth's story will inspire people to challenge "the hatred in the world."
"The thing I appreciate most was that this is a story of ingenuity and courage," said Olitzky.