Former neo-Nazi shares stories of hatred at Cal State-Chico

The Orion - California State University-Chico/November 14, 2001
By Jeanine Gore

Chico, Calif. -- When Thomas Leyden Jr.'s 3-year-old son toddled toward the television set, switched off the cartoons and said, "Mama doesn't let us watch shows with niggers on them," his father was shocked.

But he had little reason to be.

As a 15-year member of the neo-Nazi White Separatist Movement, Leyden had spouted the nasty, hurtful word hundreds of times. He had taught it -- and many others -- to his two children. He had even shown them how to salute the Nazi and Confederate flags.

But for some reason, hearing those words from his son's mouth "hit me like a ton of bricks," Leyden said.

"All the stuff I had been perpetuating had been coming out in my son," Leyden said. "He's not going to be a doctor finding a cure for cancer. He's going to be a mindless bum beating up people on the street."

Leyden told a packed Harlen Adams Theatre on Nov. 6 that he realized at that moment that he was his son's "worst enemy" and he had to change his life.

He left his family in Idaho and went to his mother's house in Southern California to beg for her forgiveness.

The man, who was known by his skinhead peers as one of the angriest and most vigilant recruiters for the neo-Nazi, White Separatist Movement, often beating up blacks and Latinos with bottles or his steel-toed boots, wanted to redeem himself. To do this, he joined the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an anti-racism education and neo-Nazi watchdog organization. He now tours the country speaking against hate and informing the public and law enforcement about neo-Nazi recruitment methods.

Leyden said for divulging their secrets he has been branded a "traitor to be killed on sight" by skinheads across the United States.

He fears for his life and the lives of his children.

He said he must tell people how hate groups attract children and youth by distributing music containing slurs against Jews, blacks and others.

"Music is the most powerful recruitment tool in the world," Leyden said. "Can music kill people? Yeah, it can."

But music is only part of the plan.

To foster racial segregation, fear and hate among teen-agers, neo-Nazi groups break into high school campuses at night and plaster them with racial epithets and Nazi symbols. The next morning, when the black or Latino students see the hateful symbols and words, they blame the white students. For protection, each race separates itself and the White Separatist Movement's mission is achieved, he said.

"When kids form their own groups, the school is forever racially divided," he said.

Leyden said it wasn't the skinheads who taught him this warfare tactic known as "divide and conquer." He said he learned it and many others during his time in the Marines.

Leyden joined the military when he was 21 years old. He said the other soldiers and his superiors knew that he kept a copy of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" next to his bed, added more white-power tattoos to his body and distributed racist videos such as White Aryan Resistance.

"A gang member wears his resume on his body," he said.

Leyden received an "other-than-honorable" discharge from the military for "alcohol-related behavior."

In 1996, Leyden decided he needed to escape from the hate that was swallowing his life and his children's futures.

Although he divorced his wife who is still a racist, his two sons are caught in the middle of their parents' beliefs -- when they're with their mother in Idaho they attend neo-Nazi rallies.

When they're with their father in California they learn tolerance. Leyden said the key to combating prejudice is teaching children that people from every race have made valuable contributions to society.

"I didn't learn that in school. I didn't learn how Christians, Muslims and Jews helped this country," he said.

Carol Edelman, professor of sociology and associate dean of the college of behavioral and social sciences, said that Leyden's speech was interesting and that she's glad she invited him to Chico State University.

"He's a living example of what we study," she said.

Edelman teaches a course called "Genocide and Mass Persuasion," which covers many famous leaders such as Stalin and Hitler who were "masters" of persuasion.

"It's really important to hear the information about how the hate groups target and recruit young people into their way of life. (The fact) that hate isn't done by uneducated or marginalized (people) in society fits right into our course," Edelman said. "I think we're going to bring him back again in two or three years. ... He's that good."

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