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Remembering a Barrier-Breaking African American Judge

We remember Judge Leon Higganbotham, who died yesterday at the age of 70.


Other segments from the episode on January 15, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 15, 1998: Interview with T.J. Leyden; Obituary for Leon Higginbotham.


Date: DECEMBER 15, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121501np.217
Head: T.J. Leyden
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, T.J. Leyden, is a former neo-Nazi who now works for a Jewish group that fights against anti-semitism. Leyden became a white supremacist at the age of 14, and remained one for 15 years. For most of that time he was a member of the group Hammerskin Nation.

Long after he dropped out of high school, he spent a lot of time around schools recruiting teenagers. After having children of his own he left the Hammerskin Nation, and now works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance.

The Center is dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, human rights, and the defense of the Jewish people. Leyden speaks to schools, churches, law enforcement groups, and the military about the beliefs and tactics of skinheads.

I asked him to describe the group he was in, Hammerskin Nation.

T.J. LEYDEN, SIMON WIESENTHAL CENTER FOR TOLERANCE: Originally it was a group called American Firm which eventually evolved into what is now known as Hammerskin Nation. Hammerskin Nation is the largest racist skinhead gang in the world.

GROSS: What are it's beliefs?

LEYDEN: It's beliefs are white separation until total annihilation of all those who are not white.

GROSS: And who are some of the people who count as not white?

LEYDEN: Everybody who is basically not white. Jews would be considered non-white, and basically, you know, black, Hispanic, Asians or anybody who had Indian blood mixed.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Was this a violent group?

LEYDEN: Oh, extremely violent. Nearly every member I know that's ever been involved with Hammerskin Nation has either been in jail, in jail, or probably awaiting trial.

GROSS: Was there an initiation where you were required to do something violent?

LEYDEN: In the original gang we had jump-ins. Later on they don't do that anymore. Now, basically, you have to just prove your violence over a period of time. A majority of the guys -- there'll be some shootings, maybe a stabbing. That's how some of the kids earn their way in.

GROSS: What is a jump-in?

LEYDEN: A jump-in is when you get four or five guys standing around you and basically they pound on you for about two minutes.

GROSS: So, they pound on the...

LEYDEN: ...The new guy.

GROSS: The initiate. Uh-huh.

LEYDEN: It shows his loyalty and his heart; how good he can fight and how good he can take a beating.

GROSS: What did you have to do?

LEYDEN: I did the jump-in.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LEYDEN: That was a long time -- I did that back when they were still doing jump-ins, and then eventually they stopped them.

GROSS: Once you became a member of Hammerskin nation did you have to prove that you could attack other people?

LEYDEN: Oh, yeah. When you became a member of Hammerskin Nation if any member of Hammerskin Nation was attacked, you had to go out and take care of whoever did the attacking. Say it was another white power group or, say, a black or Latino gang you definitely had to go and settle the score.

GROSS: So, what are some of things that you did?

LEYDEN: Oh, beatings, drive-by shootings, stabbing.

GROSS: You did drive-by shootings?


GROSS: Did you serve time for them?

LEYDEN: No. Most of the time when people do drive-by shootings they never get caught for it. Just -- it's one of those things that you get with all the time.

GROSS: Were there types of people who you considered to be the best targets?

LEYDEN: No, not really. The majority -- I'd say, as I got other gang members, about 90 percent of all my victims were white kids from my surrounding neighborhoods. Kids we had beefs with, kids we didn't like, kids who were antiracist. At the time I was involved with the racist movement.

GROSS: It's kind of ironic, isn't it, that you're supposed to be hating blacks, and Jews, and Asians, and Native Americans, and you're spending most of your time beating up other white kids from your neighborhood?

LEYDEN: That's usually what happens. I mean, if you look at all the gangs, you know, the black gangs talk about black power, yet the majority of the people they kill every day are the black kids. Latinos say "la rasa," you know, "the race" all the time, but they're out there gang banging killing Latinos all the time. Usually you go after people you know best, and it's usually people , I guess, "your own race."

GROSS: Now, you belong to a group that was about hating African-Americans and hating Jews. Did you know any black people or Jewish people from your neighborhood or your school?

LEYDEN: I only knew, like, when I was in junior high I knew one black kid. That was it. I didn't associate with him much. I never met somebody I knew who was Jewish, never did. Not in my entire life.

I probably did, but they probably just didn't tell me that they were Jewish. I mean, it's not one of the things that people bring up in conversation, they don't usually walk up to you and say, hi, I'm Jewish. It's like me walking up to somebody and saying, hi, I'm Christian to somebody all the time.

GROSS: What was your hatred based on?

LEYDEN: It was based on, basically, what people had told me. What I was reading as far as racist propaganda, books. Basically, I got a lot of the racism stuff from older racists. I'm talking like, of course, Hitler's book "Mein Kampf," Henry Ford's "International Jew," books like these.

It's very easy, you know, I mean, it's hard to pick up in your normal bookstore, but you can still find them.

GROSS: What are some of the things that more experienced racists had told you early on that you found very convincing?

LEYDEN: Just using statistics, twisting the statistics, you know, there's more blacks in prison, the blacks are definitely inferior because they're always out there killing each other, you don't see us whites out there doing it all the time. Yet, we as skinheads were out there all the time beating up other white kids.

I guess because we looked at it as we were doing the right thing, and they were doing wrong thing. That, you know, how we justify what you do, no matter what it is.

GROSS: Did you believe that the Holocaust was a lie?

LEYDEN: No, I knew the Holocaust existed. I knew that it was a fact. There was too much documentation, but as a good little racist that I was, I preached the fact that it didn't happen.

Especially now in Eastern Europe where the Holocaust was never really taught to a bunch of kids, you got a whole group of people saying, oh, the Holocaust happened. This is what we have, and then you got a whole group of Holocaust deniers who say, hey, it never did happen.

So, now you've got a 50-50 chance, I guess, with those kids over there whether they're going to believe it or not.

GROSS: Had you grown up with movies or records or books that gave you any more meaningful exposure to African-Americans and Jewish people, and Jewish culture -- African-American culture?

LEYDEN: My mom has always been a devout Christian. Never sprouted anything racist that I've ever had heard in my entire life. She listened to a lot of different music, and my dad was mostly into country and western. My mom listened to a lot of Motown and stuff like that. I just never liked it. I mean, I listened to it, I knew all of it, I know all of the songs even today because they were in my house.

But I mean, you know, I think most of mine racism definitely came from the music I chose to listen to which is a racist form of this music called Oy (ph) which is out of England, and my friends. And that's where I got, I'd say, almost 90 percent of my racism. The other 10 percent came from my grandparents and probably my dad.

GROSS: What was the music like?

LEYDEN: Very very heavy racial overtones. I mean, one of the songs go, "you gas all the Niggers, and I'll kill all the Jews. If you kill a commie, I'll kill a gypsy too." That's the way it starts out.

GROSS: I don't think I've heard that on the radio. Where did you find the music? Is it very underground?

LEYDEN: Oh, you can find it on the Net. Go on the Internet, and you can just find racist music like crazy. You can actually use your Visa and MasterCard to purchase it.

You can do it, you know, numerous things -- when I was involved, it was very hard, and we used to have to get like underground albums and then write to the album label, and then they'd send us a list of what albums they had. It was very very hard.

Now it's not, I mean, one record company last year sold over 50,000 copies of white power music in the United States alone. That's a lot of racist music going there to kids. That's not counting the guys that I would do. I mean, when I got racist music I would make tons of cassette tapes, and I'd just drive by junior high or high school and throw them out to the kids. And the kid goes home -- he may not like the music, but if one of them does, there was new recruit.

GROSS: Were there racist music concerts?

LEYDEN: Oh, yeah, definitely. They're happening all the time. There were ones that were in Racine, Wisconsin, Buffalo, New York just tried to have one, what we knew about, I threw one, Oklahoma City has had a bunch of them. As a matter of fact, I actually threw three racist rock and roll all concerts.

In the Southern California area there's usually anywhere from -- on any given weekend night, a Friday or Saturday night, you can find one.

GROSS: Tell me about one of the ones you that you threw.

LEYDEN: I threw one that was called -- they call them an Arian Fest. And I threw it out in the desert, out in the middle of California, out in the desert over a weekend -- a three day weekend. I flew bands in from Europe, two bands from Europe came in, a band from Canada came down to play, a bunch of bands in Southern California played. Charged $30 a head for the weekend, and I got over 200 kids there.

GROSS: So, what happened at the concert in addition to the music?

LEYDEN: Oh, the music basically just was out there. It was just going crazy. We had some band members that were up there, you know, preaching, you know, talking about, you know, there's going to be a race war, there's going to be -- we're going to have to destroy the federal government.

Just pumping the kids up is all it was. The kids would come to listen to music, not necessary did they want to come listen to some people give a speech. If you get a guy out there who says, oh, I'm going to have a speech and I want you to show up; you're going to hardly get any kids there. If you say, OK, I'm going to give a speech and then afterwards we're going to have this band play, you get tons of kids there because the kids come to hear the bands, and then they get the speech on top of it.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned, you know, that a lot of the kids at your concerts would be people you'd like to recruit, but they weren't all ready full-fledged racists. Would you try to set up the concerts that you did in places where there wasn't a lot of competition with other events. I mean, in some cities there are so many concerts -- the idea of a concert wouldn't be that thrilling. I mean, you have your choice.

LEYDEN: Right. I did it in San Bernardino County which has a open-air venue kind of thing which means you can just do it openly out in the middle of nowhere. That's what we did, is we went out and went to a guy -- a business. And I said, you guys have any property you want to rent? And he says, well what do you want to do? And I said, well, I want to have a birthday party out there, I just need about 20 acres.

The guy rented me 20 acres of land. We went out there, and we threw a big old concert. Now, for a lot of these kids, you know, you put white only concert, a lot of kids will show up that are white just to go see what it's about. Some kids don't even know what it is.

And then they get out there and they don't see the guys in the Klan hoods, they don't see the sheets, they see, you know, some people yelling white power and stuff, but for a white kid that's not going to bother him, you know, what's he got to worry about?

So, it's a way of getting a lot of young potential recruit kids. Usually after an Arian Fest or a racist rock and roll concert you'll see, in the surrounding communities, hate crimes usually jump. As a matter of fact where I did it -- the area I did, it's sad, but it still has a real problem up there still today.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is T.J. Leyden. He's a former member of the white supremacist group Hammerskin Nation. He left that group and that world, and now speaks out against hate groups and is a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Tools for Tolerance Program. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is T.J. Leyden. He is a former white racist, and now he consults to the Simon Wiesenthal Center Tools for Tolerance Program; speaking to schools, churches, law enforcement groups, and the military about the beliefs and the tactics of skinhead groups.

Now, one of the things I always wonder about people who are, like, professional racists is how do you completely turn off your empathy toward other people? Like, what do you have to do to not feel for the groups that you hate -- not feel that they're human or anything?

LEYDEN: Well, I mean, I really -- I got to a point that I guess I can put in this kind of analogy, they get you to go to a certain point in life, and once you get to that certain point you really lose any feeling you have for other people. I mean, do you have any children?

GROSS: I don't.

LEYDEN: So, say if you had like a niece or a nephew, or if you had a son or daughter and somebody told you that there is a lion on the hill, and tomorrow that lion's going to come down and maul your child. That's just a fact that's going to happen.

Now, to prevent that lion from mauling your child you're going to go and get that lion and destroy it because you never want your child to go through that kind of physical pain or agony.
In the same way, they say that all the racists are the lions coming to attack the white children. So, if you don't do something your white child is never going to have a future.

GROSS: Is that an analogy that was actually used for you?

LEYDEN: Oh, yeah, definitely. Definitely. That was one of the analogies that even later on I started using.

GROSS: Did you have children at the time it was used?

LEYDEN: My wife at the time -- there was somebody talking to me about it because I was talking about some of the things -- was pregnant with my first son.

GROSS: But you were already a racist then, weren't you?

LEYDEN: I was already involved in the movement for quite some time. But this is when they really wanted me to become a recruiter.

GROSS: I see.

LEYDEN: I had to go out and recruit other kids.

GROSS: Right. And turn up your level of commitment.

LEYDEN: Right.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Were you confident that you were better than the people that you hated?

LEYDEN: Not always. I mean, I know there's -- I would just people that I'm not better as, per se, I couldn't be as intelligent as somebody who is a black scientist who was a nuclear physicist. I would basically -- because you can't do it as one person on one person.

How they do it is they say, as a whole, our race is more intelligent, our races is smarter, our race is brighter. Then you get people that write books that say that and it's just -- you get college professors, you know, the Bell curve. I mean, that book was like -- the racists loved that book because they were able to go to high school kids and say, look, it's not just us that saying it, we've even got college professors and universities saying it. Look at these scientists, you know, it's like that kind of crazy stuff like that. Where it just taints everything in existence.

GROSS: How did you first join the racist group?

LEYDEN: I first joined, basically, just through a bunch of older kids. I was going to a bunch of, at that time, punk rock shows, hanging out. These guys saw me, they kind of liked my violence. I think they saw something in me.

GROSS: They kind of liked your violence, what did they see of your violence?

LEYDEN: I was really -- I was starting to become a more violent person. My parents were going through a really nasty divorce, and instead of venting my frustration, let's say, the way my brother did -- my brother went to football. My other brother started rebuilding cars in auto shop. I basically just started venting on people. I started attacking people that would just make me angry or upset. And these guys who were older exploited it, they used it to their advantage.

GROSS: So, they saw that you had this potential for violence, and what did they do to recruit you?

LEYDEN: Basically they just had me hangout. They let me hangout with them, get involved with them, drink with them. I mean, for the first in my life I had older brothers. I'm the oldest, but now I had older brothers.

GROSS: What was appealing about what they were showing you and the whole lifestyle of belonging to the group?

LEYDEN: It's a family. If anybody messes with you they've got to mess with all of us. If they attack you, they've got -- we're going to go after them. And if you go out there long enough, sooner or later you'll be attacked. If you dress like a gang member, sooner or later a rival gang member is going to attack you.

I got beat up one night, and these guys went out and just literally, almost, killed one of the other gang members. And I figured, God, these guys have so much loyalty to me and they're going to do this; so, I've got to do it back for them.

GROSS: So, you felt really good when they attacked the other guys on your behalf?

LEYDEN: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: Did your parents know? Did you brother know that you were joining this group?

LEYDEN: I think both my younger brothers knew. My parents didn't know for almost four years, what I was involved with.

GROSS: Were they oblivious or did you just hide it from them?

LEYDEN: I hid it a little bit from them, but I think they also were oblivious. Not my son. My son can't be doing that. It's the same thing when somebody goes, hey, your kid's on heroin. No, not my kid. It can't be. No. No. No. You got the wrong kid.

And then the kid ODs one night and then they got to find out the hard way. My parents had to find out the hard way, you know, being arrested, getting in trouble, and then, finally, my mom calling the police department and asking some questions, and then telling her the truth.

GROSS: What was her reaction when she found out?

LEYDEN: She was very sad. She was very upset. When I came home everything I had in my room was out of my house. I mean, she literally packed up everything that was mine and put it in garbage begs. And told me that I could it outside in my car, but I was not to bring the trash back in the house, and if I did I'd be outside with the rest of the trash.

GROSS: What was your reaction to that?

LEYDEN: Well, I love my mother, I respected her in her house so I didn't bring the stuff back into her house.

GROSS: So you went to live with gang members?

LEYDEN: No, I stayed living at her house. She still allowed me to stay there.

GROSS: Oh, she just didn't want the racist stuff in there.

LEYDEN: In the house.

GROSS: Did this dissuade you it all from continuing with your beliefs and the violence?

LEYDEN: No, no. Actually, not all. By the time -- by the time they found out what I was involved with, nothing would've stopped me by that time. I mean, I was 18 by this time -- I got involved when I was 14. By the time I was 18 I was running the gang. I mean, in my area, I mean, I was second in command. And that was just...

GROSS: ...What did it mean to be second in command?

LEYDEN: I controlled -- I was recruiting kids -- at this time kids used to be vicious gang members. We were pumping the gang up. I mean, we went from a gang in, like, a week of only five kids to a gang of over 35 in about six months. And we basically did whatever the hell we wanted to do.

GROSS: You said that you were second in command, and that you were recruiting a lot of other people to join the Hammerskin Nation. What were your techniques for recruiting people?

LEYDEN: Well, in the early stages, I was just recruiting for gang members it was just about size. Just as many kids I could possibly get whether they were good fighters or not -- just, we wanted numbers.

Later on, I started using music, comic books -- they have hard core racial overtones and themes to them. You can walk into some comic book stores and you're not going to believe the comic books you're going to find on the shelves that talk about white power and racism. I mean, there's one that even says that World War II never even happened. It's incredible -- Hitler's a good guy. Stuff like that, I'd just talk to them, I'd become their friend.

When a kid gets out of school at 2:30 in the afternoon, and mom and dad don't get home till 7:00 -- 5 hours later. Who's your kid talking to? I mean, if I was spending four and a half, five hours a day with your son or daughter, who is more of an impact and influence on part of their lives?

GROSS: Were there certain kinds of kids that you felt were most easily persuaded?

LEYDEN: We could always find the vulnerable kid. All kids are going to be vulnerable at a certain time. The majority of kids we went at, they were between the ages of 12 and 14. That's their puberty stage, that's the time when they're going from a very concrete way of thinking to a very abstract way, you know, they're starting to get their adult brain, but they're not adults, they're not kids, they're kind of confused.

That's the time when you would go after them the most -- you hit them the hardest. Now, this is an easy group to belong to. What do you got to be? I got to be white, and I got to hate everybody else. Oh, that's OK, that's cool. So, then they get involved.

Other kids, you got to do more with. Like I said, you've got to give them comic books, CDs, videos, you've got to spend time with them and talk with them, and bring them along. There's just most multiple things.

The one kid that I always looked for was the kid that if there was a group of 10 kids standing around, if he left two of those -- three of those kids followed him, I want the kid that walked away -- and the kids followed him. Because I know if I get him, his followers will follow him right into the racist movement at that time.

GROSS: Did you know how to play on kids insecurities? I mean, for instance, a lot of 12-year-olds are very insecure about going from boyhood to manhood, you know, are they man enough? Would you work with that?

LEYDEN: Oh, definitely. I mean, I'd get a 14-year-old kid a 12-year-old kid, and we'd be hanging out, and say, hey, how you guys doing today? Oh, were doing OK, you know. By the time that kid hit 14 -- I just basically talked to them from 12 or 11, but when they hit 14 I say, hey, man, why don't you come over here and have a beer with us and the guys. You're old enough. You're a man now.

He's not man, he's 14 years old, he's barely wet behind the ears. I treat him like a man, and give him the respect as a man, as long as he earns the respect. And what's going to happen is he ain't going to do nothing until he's about 15, 16 years old. When he hits 15 or 16 years old he's going to go out and start committing violent acts for us if he wants to keep being called a man and not a be called a wuss.

GROSS: T.J. Leyden is a former neo-Nazi who now works with the human rights group, the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with T.J. Leyden. He was a neo-Nazi for 15 years, for most of that time he was a member of the group Hammerskin Nation. He started questioning his beliefs after he had children. He has since renounced white supremacism and now works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center which fights for human rights, and the defense of the Jewish people.

You know, I was going on the Internet just kind of looking at some of the white power Web sites, and I notice that a lot of people seem to have nicknames like Octavian or Sun of Oden, and I was wondering if that was part of the appeal too; that you get a cool name. You get a cool exotic name.

LEYDEN: Yeah, I mean, we had ones like Wolfpack. They come up with really off the wall names. Anything that was derogatory, or they used terms like 88 and 14 in their name. Skinhead girl 14 or skinhead girl 88 which basically means that they're white power. Most people don't know that the term 88, the eighth letter of the alphabet being "H" means "Heil, Hitler."

Where I work at the Museum of Tolerance we actually put a book out, it's called "The Lexicon of Hate," and it actually gives people these symbolisms, these names. Rahoah (ph) which stands for "Racial Holy War."

Fourteen means you must secure the existence of our race, and a future for white children. Now, you won't know this, off the bat, but they know it. Other racists can pick it up and say, hey, that's a racist person, now I can talk to them.

GROSS: Did you have a nickname?

LEYDEN: When I was involved?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LEYDEN: When I was online, I used to use one of the phrases "old skin" because I was one of the oldest skinheads I knew in this country. I'd been involved for such a long time.

GROSS: I mean, that was supposed to get respect, I imagine.

LEYDEN: It got a lot of respect from a lot of different people. A lot of different people.

GROSS: Now, you joined the Marines. Did you think you'd be able to be a practicing white supremacist within the Marines?

LEYDEN: I didn't really think about it. It didn't bother me, but when I got in I was totally able to be a white power racist and be in the military.

GROSS: Why did you join?

LEYDEN: Basically, to get away from some of the trouble I was starting to get into.

GROSS: What kind of trouble?

LEYDEN: I was starting to get into trouble a lot. I was started getting a reputation where the cops were coming after me, the cops were seeing me, they'd pull me over, they'd stop me on the street. And I went to jail; so I said, you know what? It's time for me to get out of here for a while and let everything coo off. So, I joined the Marine Corps.

GROSS: You said you were able to still be a white supremacist when you joined the Marines. I would imagine, in some ways, that the Marines might have been the first time that you were exposed to people who weren't white, you know, African-Americans, Jewish people.

LEYDEN: As a matter of fact, my commanding warrant officer was Jewish, and my immediate superior was black inside the Marine Corps.

GROSS: Let me just say, weren't white by your standards. I just thought I'd better add that, yeah.

LEYDEN: He was white and Jewish, but I had a swastika flag inside my wall locker. I had Hitler's book, "Mein Kampf," George Lincoln Rockwell who was the founder of the American Nazi Party. I had this stuff in my -- right there. Open, I mean, they could see it every time they came into my room.

GROSS: What would they say?

LEYDEN: Nobody really ever said anything. Some people said, we don't like that, it's not right. Never anything about, well, you've got to pack it up and ship it home because you can't have it while you're in the Marine Corp. None of that.

I mean, I had people coming by -- sargeants, corporals, lieutenants that would come by my room and say, hey, you know you've got to watch "Geraldo" tonight, some of your friends are on there, and laugh about it.

GROSS: Did that mean that they didn't take you seriously as a threat?

LEYDEN: I think it was. I think they didn't take me very seriously as a threat, and to my advantage it actually worked. I was able to recruit other people, that were in the Marine Corps, to join white power groups. I think a lot of them didn't see that, oh, he can't be racist because I was sitting down with some people that were on the military base who were black, and actually work with them. But they were with, like, the Nation of Islam. They were black racists.

So, it was very easy. They'd say, well, he can't be racist because he's talking to so many blacks. Well, we had the same agenda, when I was involved with the racist movement the black separatists and the white separatists had the same agenda, they want to separate the races.

So, you know, it was very very simple, and a lot of people, like you said, did not take it very seriously, and when they didn't take it seriously, eventually it became a very big problem.

The Army didn't take their racist problems seriously, and they had the murder of the black couple in Fayetteville.

GROSS: Did you challenge any of your views to actually be exposed, and to work with people who weren't like you?

LEYDEN: Actually, what I did is the Marine Corps perfected my racism. It got me from being a street hoodlum, and a street thug, and just beating people up because of the color of their skin, to where I actually started working with other groups of races; black, Latino, Asians who had the same goal as the white racists did of totally separating everybody on the planet; it got me to read a lot more; got me to become more intellectual is what it did. It just basically rounded me out a lot better.

GROSS: If it got you to be more intellectual, I would have thought it would have gotten you to challenge some of your own opinions.

LEYDEN: At that time it didn't because at that time I still, basically, figured that what I was doing was 100 percent correct and right. And there was no need to question it, there was no need to look at it as being wrong.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is T.J. Leyden, he's a former white supremacist who now works against hate groups and consults to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Tools for Tolerance Program. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is T.J. Leyden, he's a former white supremacist. He now consults with the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Tools for Tolerance Program; speaking to schools, church groups, law enforcement groups about the beliefs and tactics of skinhead groups.

You were married to a woman who, like you, was a white supremacist. Now, you had a baby -- were you trying to rear the baby according to white racist beliefs?

LEYDEN: My oldest son, when he came up from the hospital, actually had a swastika flag over his crib. Most kids have mobiles, he had a swastika flag. My second son came, and in the room there was a swastika flag and a Confederate flag both in the room.

Now, this is -- when my second son was born was when I slowly started to look at things differently. I started to question things that I hadn't been questioning for some time.

I was still reading a lot of books, I do like to read, I do that quite often even though I have a mild form of dyslexia -- I have to read a book two or three times, but once I get the book, I get the book very very well.

So, I really started to question a lot of things that I had been taking for granted for quite too long. And I started to get some of the answers, and some of the answers I got were not the answers I wanted to get.
GROSS: What do you mean?

LEYDEN: Well, I wanted to get the pat answer to keep my racism going, to keep my racism flowing. And the reality was is that's not the way it was working. It was actually going in the opposite direction.

I was teaching my kids to be racist, educating them to be racist, but I didn't understand the extent that I was doing it to them until my youngest son was saying stuff like I hate Jews, I hate the federal government, I hate, you know, he would say Niggers.

And then, I'm sitting there going, you know, this kid doesn't even know what he's talking about, man. He has no idea what -- you see, I was just totally indoctrinating my son.

GROSS: Yeah, but is that what you wanted him to think anyway?

LEYDEN: I guess in some way I wanted him to think that way, but I also wanted him to be a little more, I guess, an independent thinker. And then I also thought about what his life was going to be.

I mean, if his life was his dads life, man, that was really no life at all. I mean, it really wasn't. I was just -- I was a glorified gang member is what I was. And he would have to go through the same aspects of gang life that I had to go through, and I didn't know if he could cut.

GROSS: What else were you exposed to that made you challenge the white supremacist believes that you held for so long?

LEYDEN: I actually started talking to people that were black, Hispanic, again. Talking to them about different issues, talking about things that I hadn't been talking to them about before. Started getting back into Christianity and getting away from paganistic beliefs and that.

GROSS: Let me stop you. How did you start talking to African-Americans and Latinos?

LEYDEN: Just like at lunch counters during lunch break. Just sitting down, and they'd sit down next to me and we'd start carry a conversation talking to them. Talking to them in the work environment, you know, when I would go do my work -- my business, just talk to them there.

GROSS: What was the last straw for you when you decided, OK, I'm going to leave this life, I'm going to leave this group?

LEYDEN: The last straw happened about a year before I actually left the movement. I was up at a place called -- Arian Nation has this compound in Northern Idaho. And I was up there, and I'd ask a question -- not just one, but to a couple of different people -- but one to just a general assembly.

I said, if we wake up tomorrow and everybody on this planet who is not white and Arian -- just is dead, you know, we've miraculously won this race war we're all talking about -- what is on our agenda, what's next in our plans?

Before anyone could answer, this young man who's about 24 sitting next to me, hits me in the leg and says, T.J. you can just sit down, dude, because we're going to start with hair color next. Now, initially, I laughed along with everyone else in the room about that statement.

I went home, I was thinking about the statement, and started thinking about Eugenics, you know, that only really strong males allowed to mate with fruitful females, I started thinking about genetic coding, all this other stuff, and I realized that sooner or later hair color and eye color would matter.

Hair color and eye color did matter to the Nazis. If you were lighter and that meant you were higher on the chain. If you were darker and darker, well, you were on the bottom of the chain.

So, eventually that chain is going to have a problem and, eventually, they've got to get rid of the problems in the chain. So, that started to really make me think a lot more, and within a year's time from that straw, being thrown in the camel's back, and actually talking a lot more then, with different people, I decided that it was time for me to leave.

GROSS: Was it hard to get out?

LEYDEN: It was -- well, for me it was -- by the time I made the decision, no. Afterwards was when the death threats came, the Web pages about how big of a race traitor I am.

GROSS: Let me stop you. I found one of those Web pages, one of them is still out. I guess it's a picture of you, it says, what's wrong with this picture? And it says, for those of you who don't know that's T.J. "The Butt Plug" Leyden, pronounced "T"-"R"-"A"-"Y"-"T"-"O"-"R". And it says, notice first the swastika tattoo then notice him standing proudly in front of the good old Wiesenthal Center. You tell me what's wrong with this picture.

And then underneath it says, a tribute to his mommy. And there's a picture of the international code for a wheelchair, and then you can see a stick figure walking out from the wheelchair. What's that a reference to?

LEYDEN: Well, my mom has polio, and she now has post polio. And she's very -- she's probably going to end up having to stop working very very soon because her disabilities is getting more and more and more. So, they put that on there as a dig to my mom.

GROSS: Now, under Hitler's regime she would have been seen as being inferior.

LEYDEN: She would have been eliminated. End of story.

GROSS: Is that something you ever thought about during your supremacist days?

LEYDEN: I did a little bit, but I figured, you know, I could save my mom. She's my mom, I can save her. Nobody will do any damage to her because of who I am. Later on, as I started getting more and more into it, it didn't matter if she's my mom or not. If she's dead, she's dead, they don't care. They don't care if she's your mother, if she's your kid. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter who you are, it matter's who they are.

GROSS: I want to get back to this thing on the Web. I mean, are there a lot of threats, still, against you?

LEYDEN: I still receive threats every once in a while. Not as much as I used to get, but I'll probably get a couple after the radio interview today. Usually, after I do an interview I will get two or three. Sometimes, well, this station -- I'll probably get a lot more. Just because when they listen, that's when they call up, and I'll get a death threat.

Phone banks -- what they call phone banks around the United States where people will call up to get a message from a racist recruiter -- I'll probably be on them again. They'll probably put my phone number out again at my home, so I'll probably get some more racist calls at home. E-mails -- I'll get more e-mails saying, you know, you're a racist scum, you're a traitor, da, da ,da ,da. That kind of stuff.

GROSS: What would you tell your friends within Hammerskin Nation when you're leaving? What would you tell them about why you changed your mind?

LEYDEN: Basically, I only told one person who was my best friend for, I'd say, nearly 13 years. We started in the movement at the same time, we were in the movement for about forever. And his only reaction was to me is that I'm going to kill, you traitor. That's exactly what he said to me, I'll kill you.

GROSS: Did he try?

LEYDEN: So far not him. I've had three incidents where people have tried to sneak a gun into where I was speaking one night -- one of the colleges I was speaking at, and a couple of other incidents that have happened. So, I mean -- I'm sure that they're going to continue to try, but I'm going to continue to speak out against the racist movement.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is T.J. Leyden, he's a former skinhead, a former member of Hammerskin Nation, a white supremacist group. Now, he speaks out against hate groups and consults with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

How did you get involved with the Simon Wiesenthal Center?

LEYDEN: Well, my mom had seen Rabbi Hier (ph) many many times on the TV, and also Rabbi Abraham Cooper. And said that I should go down to the Museum of Tolerance and I looked at my mom and said, mom, are you smoking crack? Are you nuts?

That's a Jewish place, I'm an ex-Nazi. Jews hate Nazis unless you put an "ex" in front of the word. I mean, I can't go down there. I'm not going to go down and get cussed out by them. My mom kept at me, kept using the guilt trip on me, and so I basically just wanted to get her to shut, so I called and told them who I was. To my surprise they actually wanted to talk to me.

So, I came in and I brought in all my racist material that I had accumulated for 15 years; pictures, videotapes, CDs -- everything I had. Gave it to them, went on a tour of the Museum of Tolerance, the Holocaust section.

Ended up talking to the research department for two and a half weeks about anything and everything I could about racism; what they planned, what they were doing, people in the movement, where they were at, what was up, had they moved here, had they done this, whatever I could help them with.

After two and a half weeks I just went home. I was back running my business, working. I'm home for ten days, and then I get a phone call from Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean and he asked me to please come in.

So, I came in with my mom that day, and talked to him in Rabbi Hier, who is the dean and founder of the center -- the Museum of Tolerance. Talked to them for 12 hours, and that's when they asked me if I would please speak for the National Task Force against Hate of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

I thought about it, I talked it over with every member of my family, talked it over with the rabbis a couple of more times, and then I said I would actually do it. So, since the last week of July of 1996, I literally haven't shut up. It's extremely interesting to me, when I look at the people who have the most reason in the world to hate me are Jewish people and the black people who lived through civil rights.

Jewish Holocaust survivors are amazing to me, they befriend me, they thank me for what I'm doing now. People that lived through civil rights that were beaten and attacked, they come up to me and say, thank God you're on our side now and you're helping. It's just amazing. The people that should really despise me the most, are the ones who embrace me the most.

GROSS: What about your feelings know? Are there still occasional glimmers of your racism and anti-semitism that you can't just purge completely from your mind?

LEYDEN: I'm in professional psychology. I talk with professional psychologists once a week, and talk to them about the issues. I mean, do I still have racist thoughts that come into my mind, of course it does.

I mean, you can't turn off 15 years of your life and say I'm never going to have another racist thought again, I mean, everybody has racist thoughts. No matter how liberal they might be, those thoughts do come into your head from time to time. Whether you're saying, that dumb old redneck, or, you know, whatever. Those thoughts come into your head.

So, I mean, I'm constantly fighting them. I'm dealing with them. I don't let that interfere with my friendships. The majority of my friends who are black when I sit with them and talk to them I say, everyone once in a while, you know, I'll see a young black kid on the street corner and I look at him and say, God, what a gang member.

And then I think to myself, why did you think that? How do you know he's a gang member? How do you know he's not just a normal everyday kid? And then they say, well, heck, man, I see a white guy walking down the street with long hair and I think he's a stoner. Maybe he's not.

I guess the stereotypes that are just portrayed in society -- we get these things. I mean, you know, when we think about white trash you think of trailer parks, if you think of young black males you think gang member. I mean, you have the stereotype that, you know, well, if you get a really good deal you Jewed somebody down or if you don't want to give somebody some money they say oh, what are you Jewish?

I mean, these are like bad stereotypes that are in society that give the racists fuel. It plants seeds in young minds til eventually these racists can cultivate them and make them grow, and hopefully they'll be somebody like who I was.

GROSS: Well, T.J. Leyden, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LEYDEN: Thank you.

GROSS: T.J. Leyden is a former member of the neo-Nazi group Hammerskin Nation. He now works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and it's Museum of Tolerance.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: T.J. Leyden
High: T.J. Leyden is a former skinhead who now works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Tolerance, speaking out against hate and hate crimes. Leyden is 32 years old. He joined the Hammerskin, a neo-Nazi group when he was 14, later became a recruiter, and left it at the age of 29. Now he is a consultant for the Center's Tools for Tolerance Program and speaks out around the country to school groups, church groups, law enforcement and military units.
Spec: Race Relations; Crime; Violence; T.J. Leyden

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: T.J. Leyden

Date: DECEMBER 15, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121502NP.217
Head: Judge Leon Higginbotham
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Judge Leon Higginbotham dedicated much of his career to challenging racism through the law, and to challenging racism within the legal system. He died yesterday at the age of 70 after a stroke.

From 1990 to his retirement in '93 he was the chief judge of the Federal Appeals Court in Philadelphia. He was only the third black judge to have directed anyone of the countries circuit courts. In 1964, he was named by President Johnson to the Federal District Court in Philadelphia, and in 1977 President Carter elevated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Two years ago he spoke with FRESH AIR guest host Barbara Bogaev. They discussed how he had to deal with institutional racism throughout his education.

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: You grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. Your mother was a maid, and your father was a factory worker. And you were the first student from your segregated grammar school to graduate to the academic track at Trenton's junior high. How did you accomplish that?

JUDGE LEON HIGGINBOTHAM, U.S. COURT OF APPEALS: Well, you had to have second year Latin to enter the academic program at, what was then called the Lincoln Junior High School, an all-black school. But since we do not have Latin, it would mean that I would have to go in the industrial program, but my mother went to see the principal.

The principal said it couldn't be done because I had not had first year Latin. My mother begged him to give me an opportunity saying she was confident that I'd be able to make it. So, I entered the academic program where I started with second year Latin not having had the first year.

BOGAEV: That's not that easy, is it?

HIGGINBOTHAM: It certainly wasn't.

BOGAEV: Well, what had your mother -- what did your mother hope for you?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, my mother had a minimum education, maybe a maximum of sixth grade for general education. My mother was the most inspiring person I've ever known, and she disregarded the probability curve.

My mother believed in America in the sense that even with all of its obstacles, that if you give your society the very very best and that you're steadfast that somewhere God will make a way. So that she convinced me from the time I was three or four years old to really give it nothing less than my best, and I think that having a mother who had that type of commitment had a profound impact on me so that I could face obstacles and not feel overcome.

BOGAEV: Well, you got into Purdue University, and at that time there were 6,000 whites and 12 blacks, and they had a kind of segregated housing arrangement for the black students which I imagined sounds quite wretched. You asked the president of the University for a section of any dorm just for the 12 of you that had some heat. What was his response?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, we slept in an attic with no heat, and you can imagine when the temperature got 20 and 15, how miserable. And his response was, look, Higginbotham, the law does not require us to have you here, and you either take it or leave it.

And I finished my semester there, and I did well academically, and I transferred. And I did more than really transfer from Purdue which I had entered when I was 16 and was studying engineering. I decided that I would go into law because I wanted to, in my life, make a change so that my children would not face another president such as Dr. Elliott who was willing to preclude us from equality at Purdue.

BOGAEV: So, he made you a lawyer.

HIGGINBOTHAM: He certainly did. I would have been an engineer but for him.

BOGAEV: You graduated from Yale Law School. You were star of the debate team, you had high recommendations and the dean of the school sent you, with recommendations, to the Yale Law School representative in Philadelphia. Did the representative know you were black?

HIGGINBOTHAM: No, he did not. In fact, he wrote me a letter commending me on my record, and said my problem would be to decide which firm I would want to go to. When I got there in December, and when he met me he didn't even ask me to sit down. He left me standing in front of his desk and he said, well, Higginbotham there's nothing I can do for you, but I can give you the name of two black lawyers and that was the end of the conversation.

But I don't want to give a negative on all of these, though all of the law firms refused to take me and refused, a couple of years earlier, to take Bill Coleman who had clerked for a United States Supreme Court Justice. I did have a great fortune in the sense that there was a Quaker judge, Judge Curtis Bach (ph) who, when he got my papers, looked at them and hired me on the spot.

And Judge Bach made a profound difference. He is the father of Garth Bach (ph), the former president of Harvard. So, that I would like for you to clearly understand that when I discuss the deficiencies in race relations in America I am aware of many of the constraints and I'm aware of the significant number of people of goodwill who have made a profound contribution into bridging the gaps so that a history of the past will not be a prologue to the future.

GROSS: Judge Leon Higginbotham, recorded in January of 1997. He died yesterday at the age of 70. He spoke with FRESH AIR guest host Barbara Bogaev.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Barabara Bogaev, Washington, DC
Guest: Judge Leon Higginbotham
High: Judge Leon Higginbotham
Spec: Justice; Civil Rights; Profiles; Judge Leon Higginbotham

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Judge Leon Higginbotham
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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