Former neo-Nazi fights racism he once advocated

Tom “T.J.” Leyden shared his story of transformation with students Wednesday.

Betsy Graca

In the late 1980s, Tom “T.J.” Leyden found himself in the center of the white supremacist movement, becoming an active recruiter to it.

Leyden said he and his fellow neo-Nazis stuffed fliers with racial slurs into middle and high school lockers, knowing the white students would take the blame and face attacks from minority students.

“We came on the campus and started protecting the white kids,” he said, “So we looked like the good guys.”

Leyden said he used this sort of “divide and conquer” tactic to recruit 80 kids to the white supremacy movement.

However, Leyden has since turned over a different leaf, and is now fighting the racism that he once advocated.

On Wednesday in Willey Hall, Hillel, the Jewish Student Center at the University, welcomed Leyden as he shared his story of transformation in “Turning Away from Hate.”

The event organizer, Dan Garon from Hillel, said the goal of the event was to open the University community’s eyes to the hate crimes that exist in this country. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are seven known active hate groups in Minnesota.

While Garon said Leyden “can never wash his hands of what he did,” the former skinhead’s message is ultimately a good one.

“I think that anybody who actually takes what T.J. has to say to heart will realize that any kind of racist thinking is absurd and illogical,” he said.

Even though Leyden said that not everyone believes his transformation to be genuine, he hopes his words can still be used as tools to fight hate.

The former neo-Nazi said his change of heart didn’t happen overnight but was a progressive process.

One instance that made Leyden reconsider his lifestyle occurred when he was watching “Gullah Gullah Island” with his children.

“My 3-year-old walked over and turned the TV off and turned and scolded me. He said, ‘Daddy, we don’t watch shows with n—— on them,’ ” Leyden said.

At first, Leyden said he was excited about his son following in his footsteps – he even placed a swastika flag over his son’s crib – but then he stopped to think what this meant for his child’s future.

“My 3-year-old son is telling me I’m not racist enough,” he said. “At that moment, I had to ask myself, ‘Am I willing to sacrifice my son for this belief?’ “

Even though this did turn on a light-bulb in his head, Leyden still stayed in the movement for another 18 months.

“My kids kicked my head so hard that the light went on, but nobody was home to do all my dusting and clean out what was up there,” he said.

Leyden said he now faces death threats from other neo-Nazis, though he continues to speak to hundreds of thousands of students to advocate a fight against hate.

Ellen Kennedy, interim director for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, said people are attracted to Leyden’s story.

“People will find it very powerful to hear that someone was able to make that kind of transformation, and not only to make it personally, but to act on it in a very public way,” she said.

Jillian Chmiel, an environmental policy sophomore, said she came to see Leyden speak because it’s fascinating to see what people are capable of doing to other people.

She said Leyden “had such a powerful hate within him, and what the journey must have been like to purge himself of those views is very interesting.”

Garon said that, while the recent hate crimes at St. Cloud State – which included swastikas being found on campus this year – are widely known, students “are largely ignorant to problems that ride right below the surface.”

He added, “I would encourage the community to pay more attention to these issues. Pay attention to what you say. Pay attention to the thoughts in your head.”