The Hillel Jewish University Center will bring TJ Leyden, a former neo-Nazi, to speak today at 8:30pm at the Public Health Auditorium on University of Pittsburgh campus.
Leyden’s life took a wrong turn at 15 when his parents divorced and he turned to punk rock and a violent skinhead culture to vent his anger. Fifteen years later, he was one of the most successful organizers in the white supremacist movement. He even hung a Nazi flag over the crib of his newborn son.
Then he experienced something that changed his life.
“One day, I heard my son use the word ‘nigger’ and saw him give the Nazi salute,” Leyden says. “He was only three, and I knew he wasn’t going to grow up to find the cure for cancer or serve on the Supreme Court. He was going to be a mindless bum beating people for kicks.”
That realization led him 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.
“I got the impression that this was a person who had had a profound change of heart and who was willing to tell the world, I was wrong,” said Rabbi Marvin Heir, director of the center. “He is saying, ‘Everything I’ve stood for in the last decade was for nothing.’ That’s admitting to a life’s mistake.”
The then 30-year old ex-Marine has spoken at more than 100 high schools and to various military groups including the Pentagon, presenting at Hate Crimes Summits and to the FBI. To date, Leyden is the only former skinhead actively working to fight against the groups that once nurtured him.
White supremacist groups frequently target him with death threats. Many of their Web sites have issued a “kill on sight” directive against Leyden.
Leydon is undeterred.
“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 says. “As a recruiter, I must have I brought at least 80 haters into the movement. So now my goal is to turn at least a million students the other way.”