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Former skinhead promotes tolerance

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A 15-year member of the white supremacist movement, Tom "TJ" Leyden first began to rethink his lifestyle when two of his sons were toddlers.

Leyden, of California, recalls watching a kids' show with his 1-year-old son when his 3-year-old used a racial slur to refer to one of the show's characters.

A former recruiter and organizer for the neo-Nazi movement, Leyden was at first proud that his boys were already repeating the hate speech they'd heard.

If the boys were this hateful at ages 1 and 3, he wondered what they would be like as teenagers. But still, that became a sobering thought.

"I didn't want my kids to be me," Leyden said.

Eighteen months and a lot of soul-searching later, Leyden left the white supremacy movement and became an anti-racism activist. He and his wife founded StrHATE Talk Consulting more than a decade ago. The organization aims to fight hate and bigotry with education.

Leyden, who gives between 25 and 30 speeches each year, spoke at West Virginia State University's annual Human Rights Lecture on Thursday. He's the author of "Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope," and was a speaker at former President Bill Clinton's White House Conference on Hate Crimes.

Leyden encouraged those who attended his lecture to actively oppose racism.

"Be a positive mentor," he said. "Help the world stop creating men like me."

As a recruiter for the white supremacist movement, Leyden and his friends used to spread propaganda on college campuses, he said. The goal was getting a group of students to think that other students of a different race were behind the propaganda.

They would wait in the wings for physical fights to break out between the students, and then Leyden and his friends would jump in.

Some white students would join Leyden's group, either out of gratitude for the help or fear that other students would beat them up.

Music is one of the biggest means of recruiting people to the white supremacist movement, Leyden said. "Skinhead" music uses expletive-filled lyrics that promote violence against non-whites.

Songs from the white power genre can be found on iTunes, and until that changes, Leyden is boycotting all Apple products.

"I don't own anything Apple creates and I won't until they stop selling hateful music," he said.

Neo-Nazis also use video games to recruit children as young as 9, he said.

More than 8 million copies were sold of Ethnic Cleansing, a video game in which the object is to kill people of other races.

Also, Leyden estimates there are more than 14,000 racist websites on the Internet.

Leyden credits his family, including his brothers, mother and grandmother, for helping him get out of the white supremacist movement.

"I got lucky," he said. "I got very, very, very lucky in life."

For more information on Leyden, see his website, www.strhatetalk.com. Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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