Charleston West Virginia Economic Development

Discussions on Economic and Community Development in West Virginia and the Charleston MSA as well as issues of the Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The story below appeared in today's Charleston Gazette. Last night's Communities United Against Hate event was a major success, attracting more than 100 people.

Ex-white supremacist brings message of tolerance
A message of tolerance and inclusion came from an unexpected source on Tuesday, as community members in Charleston met to discuss solutions to hatred and division.

By Kellen Henry
Staff writer

Communities United Against Hate forum
WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 10
WHERE: St. John's Episcopal Church
TICKETS: Event is free to public,
free childcare will be provided
INFO: Call 340-3584 or e-mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A message of tolerance and inclusion came from an unexpected source on Tuesday, as community members in Charleston met to discuss solutions to hatred and division.

Former white supremacist activist and recruiter, Tom "TJ" Leyden spoke to social, government and business leaders about the culture of racism and the importance of fighting hate crimes at a public forum hosted by community groups.

About 150 people gathered at the Charleston Marriott Town Center Tuesday night to hear Leyden, a former neo-Nazi, talk about turning away from the white supremacy movement after 15 years.

Organizers hope the event, Communities United Against Hate: Not In Our Town, will be the first of many sessions to identify and combat hate and divisiveness in the community.

"Our hope for this series is for it to be a catalyst to create a more inclusive community and a fair, egalitarian environment. We all know that racism is part of our community and we want to take a proactive stance," said Hallie Chillag Dunlap a board member with the Charleston YWCA who helped organize the event.

Leyden talked about his own involvement in racist organizations, where he recruited impressionable young adults by giving them a sense of belonging and protection. He also talked about how the white power movement uses tools like music, magazines and video games to indoctrinate young people with prejudice.

"This is white hate and black hate set to a four/four beat. We have actually put genocide on CD," Leyden said, playing a clip and showing lyrics from explicit music used by hate groups.
Leyden began to withdraw from his involvement in racist organizations as he saw the effect his beliefs had on his two small children.

As he began to speak with more people of different races and lifestyles and consider them friends, he realized he could no longer reconcile the two conflicting beliefs.

Through Leyden's upbeat and fast-paced presentation, he made some joking remarks about groups such as homosexuals and the mentally handicapped, eliciting smiles and laughter from the audience.

At the conclusion, he used these reactions to remind the audience about the importance of avoiding even subtle bigotry.

"Laughter is passive acceptance and silence condones it," he said. "You just became part of the problem."

After leaving the white power movement, Leyden worked for more than five years at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization. He continues to speak publicly about hate crime issues, though neo-Nazi groups have threatened his life for deciding to leave the movement.

"There's a kid in this town who's begging for you right now. He's out there on the street today," Leyden said. "Please become a mentor. Stop this world from creating people like me."

Earlier Tuesday, Leyden also spoke to a group of law enforcement agents, prosecutors and corrections officers about how to recognize and address hate crimes in a uniform way, said Tracy Dorsey Chapman of the U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District.

After Leyden's presentation, a facilitator from the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service divided the audience into small groups for an hour-long brainstorming session. The small groups discussed barriers that prevent Charleston from becoming inclusive.

Group members spoke specifically about recognizing problems of racism and discrimination, creating integrated events in the community and targeting young people.

The next Communities United Against Hate event will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. at St. John's Episcopal Church on Quarrier Street in Charleston.

"I'd like to see this as a significant step toward creating a more inclusive community. "I'm proud of the community for taking the first step," said Margaret Chapman, executive director of the social justice and reproductive rights group, WV FREE, who worked on the steering committee for the forum.

The organizations involved in planning the forums include the West Virginia Hate Crime Task Force, Charleston YWCA, Covenant House, Charleston Area Alliance, the Charleston Human Rights Commission, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District for West Virginia and the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Services.


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