BY WILL LYNCH
“Not all racists are rednecks who drive pick-up trucks and carry baseball bats.”
This was the repeated message of Tom “TJ” Leyden, the keynote speaker for the James Farmer Multicultural Center’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. Leyden visited UMW to present his “Turning Away From Hate” presentation in Dodd Auditorium on Jan. 20.
Leyden is a self-proclaimed former skinhead. He belonged to numerous white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that surrounded the punk-rock scene where he grew up in southern California.
Over the years, he climbed his way up the group ladder and became one of the top recruiters and organizers for the Hammerskin Nation, “the most violent and best organized neo-Nazi group in the world,” according to Leyden.
After 15 years, he held his faith in the skinhead movement to the fire. Leyden now travels the country speaking against hate and racism with StrHATE Talk, an organization he formed with his wife, Julie Leyden, in 2000. He also recently wrote a book called “Skinhead Confessions, From Hate to Hope.”
Presidents of various multicultural student organizations on campus chose Leyden as the speaker. The students worked in collaboration with the James Farmer Multicultural Center to form the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee.
Their choice of speaker was then approved by Cedric Rucker, dean of student life, and Courtney Chapman, acting director of multicultural affairs.
“The students chose T.J. because they felt that he brought a new perspective to the Dr. King celebration,” Chapman said. “He demonstrated the ‘radical social change’ that Dr. King called the nation to. The students were very interested in hearing this story of turning away from hate. They felt that it also brought in the hope that Dr. King fought with, that everyone can change for the better.”
“I think that in order to appreciate and to learn more about the importance of diversity and inclusion, we should continue to have events and keynote speakers that raise awareness to the issues we continue to face in our society, Hasina Akhter, a senior, said. “By working together and educating ourselves we can combat them.”
While some were supportive of Leyden’s visit during Martin Luther King Jr. Week, some strongly opposed the choice of speaker.
Andrew Salatino, a freshman, had an unfavorable view of Leyden’s presentation.
“It was the opposite of what the University wanted,” Salatino said. “I think he was too proud of his actions to feel remorse for them. It seemed more like promotion for his book.”
The presentation also raised sensitive issues, with students and faculty alike.
“The presentation was replete with violent imagery.” Dr. John L. Johnson, an adjunct instructor in the department of classics, philosophy, and religion, said. “It had little or nothing to do with the ideals, work, or life of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he showed plenty examples of how to get in touch with the skinheads through music and websites,”
In addition to the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, the presentation was part of an on-going Cultural Awareness Series presented by the James Farmer Multicultural Center.