Former Neo-Nazi Risks His Own Safety to Fight Racism

03.03.14 10:45 AM ET

By Adam Grannick and Antonia Marrero for the Moral Courage Project

On August 5, 2012, Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and killed six people. Page was a member of the Hammerskin Nation, one of the largest and oldest neo-Nazi racist skinhead groups. They are known for violent attacks on African-Americans, immigrants, and other minorities.

“[People] think it’s not still around,” says TJ Leyden. A former Hammerskin, TJ gives us an inside look at what drew him into the white supremacy movement. From an early age, TJ received his father’s approval when he exhibited violence towards others. In fact, TJ’s father praised him for beating up a cousin. This mindset, equating violence with love, is what first attracted him to the racist skinheads.

For fifteen years, TJ recruited for Hammerskin Nation by sharing white-supremacist music CDs. He married a woman who shared his ideology and had two children. TJ remembers when one of his sons was watching Gullah Gullah Island, a children’s show featuring an African-American family. His son yelled, “Daddy, we don’t watch shows with n*****s on them!” This didn’t shock TJ—not at all. In fact, he was glad to see that his son was following in his footsteps. It would be something else entirely that finally made him change his life and escape the white supremacy movement.

Once he did escape, the real firestorm began. “We know where you live. We’re gonna come kill you,” a voice growled into his answering machine. Someone planted an explosive in his mailbox. Recently, a white supremacist website even posted his home address under the headline “Traitorous Scum,” with the warning, “They’ll all pay for their crimes.” Refusing to stay silent, TJ has kept his own name despite repeated death threats from people he used to consider friends.

This does not deter him. The way he sees it, this gives him a chance to be a positive role model for his children. “When I was in the movement, I could have been killed because of rival gangs, could have been killed by guys inside my own group. It’s no different now. Now, I’m just doing something right.” A fierce advocate for universal human dignity, TJ denounces the racist ideology he once embraced. He advises young people at risk of joining gangs, using his own experience to illustrate a more constructive path. He works shoulder-to-shoulder with people of all ethnic backgrounds, religions and sexual orientations, explaining, “The people who should hate me the most, and be angry with me the most because of what I did in my past, embrace me the most.”

To see what ultimately made him turn around, check out this video from Moral Courage TV.