Tom “TJ” Leyden, diversity and tolerance educator, will present “Turning Away From Hate” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26 in Sebits Auditorium in the Riney Fine Arts Center at Friends University. The event is sponsored by the Diversity Committee of Falcon Activities and Campus Events, which is a branch of the Student Government Association.
Leyden grew up in a closely-knit Irish-Catholic family in Fontana, Calif. His life took a wrong turn when his parents divorced when he was 15. He turned to punk rock and a violent skinhead culture to vent his anger.
Leyden started his own skinhead group in Redlands, Calif., at the age of 15. He joined the United States Marine Corps at age 21, and his role as a leading recruiter, organizer and propagandist for the white supremacist movement increased. After 15 years of involvement, he was one of the most successful organizers, even marrying a woman deeply committed to the movement and raising two sons in a hate-filled environment with Nazi flags hung over a crib.
After Leyden heard his son use a derogatory slur and give the Nazi salute at age 3, he realized he didn’t want that life for his son. He decided to leave his wife, who was a committed racist, and search for a better life for himself and his sons. The search led him to the California home of his mother and eventually to a job at the Simon Wiesenthal Center as an anti-hate activist and educator. He worked for more than five years for the Simon Wiesenthal Center teaching on the culture of hate and the importance in fighting back against it.
At age 30, Leyden became an educator and began speaking at more than 100 high schools and to various military groups including the Pentagon, presenting at Hate Crimes Summits and to the FBI. He was invited by former President Bill Clinton to be a featured speaker at the White House Conference on Hate, and he has trained at the Pentagon, the FBI, military bases and law enforcement agencies. He has spoken to more than 650,000 students. He has also testified against individuals on trial for hate crimes. Although he receives regular death threats from white supremacy groups, Leyden is committed to being a fierce advocate for the importance of appreciating the differences in all people.
In 1995, there were 256 hate groups and one white supremacy site on the Internet. Today, there are more than 800 hate groups and almost 5,000 hate sites on the Internet, Leyden said.
To date, Leyden is the only former skinhead actively working to fight against the groups that once nurtured him. He is one of the few known former skinheads who has left the movement and retained his own name. Leyden has published a book with M. Bridget Cook called “Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope.”
In his presentation, Leyden talks about the brutality he used to beat people because of their race. He and his friends robbed and harassed homosexuals and Latinos for sport. He shows the 29 tattoos of swastikas and Nazi SS officers that cover much of his body. He shares the recruiting methods of the neo-Nazis.
Leyden tells his remarkable story and explains his transformation. He helps students understand the harmful culture he escaped and why he is so committed to fighting it today.
“We all need to be aware of the culture of hate that exists, otherwise we are powerless to fight against the violence and insanity that they create,” Leyden said.
“College students are activists – they can make a difference,” Leyden said. “I know that my story can have an impact with that group.”
The event is open to the public. General admission is $3. Friends University students may attend free with their student ID. Educational discounts for groups are available to the surrounding school districts by contacting Gary Rapp.