‘BlacKkKlansman’ writers headline MLK luncheon, which raises $103K for scholarships

Ron Stallworth (left), who inspired the movie “BlacKkKlansman,” and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott speak at the MCC Chancellor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon. (Photos by Chris Meggs and Tim Engle/MCC)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality and the Metropolitan Community College Foundation’s mission of providing more student scholarships came together Jan. 18 at a sold-out luncheon.

The Chancellor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon, held at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown, raised $103,000 for student scholarships, said Jessica Ramirez, executive director of the MCC Foundation. The event was the College’s fifth annual MLK luncheon but the first held off-campus and the first planned as a major scholarship fundraiser.

About 620 guests gathered to hear the real-life story of “Black Klansman” Ron Stallworth, who as a police detective in the 1970s infiltrated a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Stallworth, who turned that adventure into a memoir, was joined onstage by filmmaker and KU professor Kevin Willmott, who with director Spike Lee and two others then turned Stallworth’s book into the screenplay for the acclaimed 2018 comedy-drama “BlacKkKlansman.”

The film nabbed six Academy Award nominations on Tuesday, including for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best director.

MCC Board of Trustees President Trent Skaggs (right) talks with this year’s recipients of the Chancellor’s MLK Scholarship (from left): Isaac Clay, Connor McNeall, Jaclyn Winberry and Emma Vaughn. Nuha Sarhan couldn’t attend.

The 2019 recipients of the Chancellor’s MLK Scholarship, announced at the luncheon, represent each MCC campus: Jaclyn Winberry, MCC-Blue River; Isaac Clay, MCC-Business & Technology; Emma Vaughn, MCC-Longview; Connor McNeall, MCC-Maple Woods; and Nuha Sarhan, MCC-Penn Valley. Read more about them here. The scholarship will pay MCC tuition for one year.

Queen Wilkes, the first recipient of MCC’s MLK scholarship

Several speakers, including former MLK scholarship winners Queen Wilkes (2015) and Daniel Garcia-Roman (2018), invoked quotations from King.

Chancellor Kimberly Beatty, in welcoming attendees, connected one MLK quote — “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase” — with ensuring that students succeed. She said contributions to MCC scholarship funds help students “see the whole staircase,” what’s possible with a college education.

Daniel Garcia-Roman, 2018 MLK scholarship recipient

Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books in Fairway moderated the conversation between Stallworth and Willmott, and she, too, used King’s words to frame some questions.

Stallworth told the audience that “what I did was my job” as a police detective — writing to a post office box after seeing an ad in the paper, then a week later getting a call from a local Klan leader. But Willmott said Stallworth was being modest: “The police were not really all that interested in digging up Klan members.” Stallworth was willing to make waves, he said.

As it turns out, Stallworth in real life never intended to go into law enforcement. He joined the Colorado Springs police department at the age of 19 to make some money, but his goal was to become a high school P.E. teacher.

He discovered that working undercover provided thrills and an adrenaline rush, but the challenge was surviving the bad guys. “And fortunately I got out alive,” said Stallworth, who spent 33 years in law enforcement.

Stallworth remembers telling actors in the film including John David Washington, who played him, that acting and police undercover work were similar undertakings: pretending to be something you’re not. But “actors don’t have to worry about getting a gun pulled. They have Spike Lee to say ‘Cut!’ and move on to the next scene.”

Chancellor Kimberly Beatty with Willmott (left) and Stallworth

Some details in the “BlacKkKlansman” film were fictionalized. One example: “I was not a rookie when my story unfolded,” Stallworth said. “White Ron Stallworth,” the colleague who played him in face-to-face meetings with the Klan, was actually junior in seniority. Stallworth had been on the force three years at that point.

The idea of “two-ness” is a recurring theme in “BlacKkKlansman,” Willmott said. Beyond the “two” Ron Stallworths, the film also examines the quandary of being “black and blue” — an African-American police officer. It’s difficult today but was even more difficult back then, Willmott said.

“I was too black for the white community and too blue for the black community,” Stallworth said.

He has seen some articles that say he “spoke in a white voice” when having phone conversations with Klansmen. Stallworth takes offense at that notion: “There is no distinct white voice. There is no distinct black voice.”

A crowd of more than 600 attended the fundraising luncheon. Speaker Ron Stallworth can be seen on the big screen.

Stallworth mentioned that former Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (played in the movie by Topher Grace) called him about a week before the film’s premiere, insisting that he was not a white supremacist.

“We had a nice discussion about that,” Stallworth said, to laughs from the audience.

Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books moderated the conversation with Stallworth (center) and Willmott.

Asked about his perception of the Klan today, Stallworth issued a warning: “Don’t ever sleep on them.” All it takes are “two or three idiots” getting together to form a “United Klan of Kansas City,” he said.

“Don’t sleep on these people and don’t get hung up on labels.”

Willmott said Spike Lee didn’t want “BlacKkKlansman” to be a period piece — ’70s clothes, Afros and platform shoes notwithstanding. “From the very beginning, Spike wanted to speak to the (present) day.”

He said the original ending involved a burning cross seen through windows. But real-life events prompted the director to change up the ending, to 2017 news footage of violent clashes at a white nationalists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was killed.

Willmott said the movie got nearly a 10-minute standing ovation at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, which he believed shows “how worried the rest of the world is about America.”

David L. Disney was honorary chair of the 2019 Chancellor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon. The MCC Foundation’s Fundraising Committee, co-chaired by Vicki Westerhaus and Robin Stubenhofer, helped plan the luncheon. Jessica Ramirez is executive director of the MCC Foundation.

Event sponsors:

Dream Maker sponsor: John and Marny Sherman

Freedom sponsor: JE Dunn Construction

Peace sponsors: David L. Disney; William T. Kemper Foundation — Commerce Bank, Trustee; AMC Theatres; Black Community Fund; KCP&L; McCownGordon Construction; Rainy Day Books

Love sponsors: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City; Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP; Cerner Corp.; Follett Higher Education Group; GastingerWalker& Architecture & Interior Design; Husch Blackwell; Lathrop Gage; Newmark Grubb Zimmer; Truman Medical Centers; U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management; Van Trust Real Estate

Related: MCC’s sold-out MLK luncheon Jan. 18 to feature ‘BlacKkKlansman’ writers