Former Klansman Scott Shepherd (right), with Daryl Davis, in front of the White House, in Accidental Courtesy

Reformed Racists: Is There Life After Hate for Former White Supremacists?

February 09, 2017 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

Accidental Courtesy portrays African American musician Daryl Davis’s attempt to change white supremacists by gradually shattering their prejudices with his friendship. It’s a complicated, risky, and controversial pursuit, but Davis has succeeded in convincing numerous men to abandon their hatred to become reformed racists.

One of Daryl’s former white supremacist friends is Scott Shepherd, seen in the film, who was once a Grand Dragon in the Klan but is now an anti-racism activist who Tweets under the handle @ReformedRacist. How did Shepherd get from there to here?

Shepherd “made it his life’s mission to defeat the creed he once espoused, the people [he] once called friends have sent him death threats, yet still he carries on, desperate to atone for the sins of his past” [International Business Times]. At the Martin Luther King Center, Shepherd recently publicly apologized to the family of the slain Civil Rights leader for all the terrible things he once said about Dr. King. In a video of that discussion (below), with Daryl Davis alongside him, the Mississippi native revealed that he was raised by an African American woman, and blames having a broken home with an alcoholic father, along with self-loathing, for why he turned toward the Klan (which was basically in his backyard).

Like Scott Shepherd, other high profile white supremacists who’ve become reformed racists began their reconsideration when confronted with the humanity of individuals that contradicted their poisonous assumptions.

The White Flight of Derek Black

An extraordinary Washington Post piece tells Derek Black’s story of escaping a deeply racist upbringing. Derek’s father launched Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site (it has 300,000 users and counting), and his mother was previously married to David Duke, one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots. Because of his high profile parents, Derek became known among white supremacists as “the heir.”

Derek eventually abdicated his noxious birthright after enrolling in a multicultural college, originally to disrupt the school. But when his fellow students learned his identity, they hatched a plan of their own to disrupt his hatred.

“Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything,” one student wrote.
“We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights.”
“Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”
One of Derek’s acquaintances from that first semester decided he might have an idea. He started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek’s radio show. Then, in late September, he sent Derek a text message.
“What are you doing Friday night?” he wrote.
Matthew Stevenson had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling in New College in 2010. He was the only Orthodox Jew at a school with little Jewish infrastructure, so he began cooking for a small group of students at his apartment each Friday night. Matthew always drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. Now, in the fall of 2011, Matthew invited Derek to join them.

Matthew had spent a few weeks debating whether it was a good idea. He and Derek had lived near each other in the dorm, but they hadn’t spoken since Derek was exposed on the forum. Matthew, who almost always wore a yarmulke, had experienced enough anti-Semitism in his life to be familiar with the KKK, David Duke and Stormfront. He went back and read some of Derek’s posts on the site from 2007 and 2008: “Jews are NOT white.” “Jews worm their way into power over our society.” “They must go.”

Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Matthew remembered thinking. [Read more]

Read also: In Derek Black’s own words, “Why I Left White Nationalism” (New York Times)

T.J. Leyden: Former Neo-Nazi

T.J. Leyden was once a member of Hammerskin Nation, one of the largest and oldest neo-Nazi groups. They are known for violent attacks on African-Americans, immigrants, and other minorities, and one of its members was responsible for the shooting of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left six people dead. Leyden was deeply engrained in that world, recruiting other members for fifteen years and espousing its hateful ideology to his children. And then something changed, and drastically:

Read more in this piece in the Daily Beast:

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.”

Life After Hate

Another reformed racist, Arno Michaels, wrote a book and started an organization, both called Life After Hate, to help “former members of the American violent far-right extremist movement. Through powerful stories of transformation and unique insight gleaned from decades of experience, we serve to inspire, educate, guide, and counsel.” Here’s Michaels talking to Milwaukee’s WTMJ after the Sikh temple shooting:


Former wrestler Duke Schneider, a.k.a. “Pitbull,” was a member of a new form of the SS, a Hitler fetishist who keep Nazi memorabilia in the Brooklyn home where he commanded a cadre of neo-Nazis. He was also a former guard at Rikers Island prison. But there was a major plot twist to his life story.

He gave speeches at Nazi rallies around the country. A small militia that operated along the Arizona border wearing Nazi insignia would call him constantly for guidance.

But a few years ago when he paused to take stock of his life, he found himself missing a friend, Catherine Boone, a health care aide and minor cable television personality. Mr. Schneider had met her years ago at an autograph convention. They now saw less of each other, partly because he was so busy being a neo-Nazi and partly because his comrades would have disapproved.

Ms. Boone is black.

Read more in this New York Times story, “The Rehabilitation of Pitbull.”

Timothy Zaal and Matthew Boger: A Tale of Violence, Redemption and Forgiveness

Timothy Zaal was a racist skinhead as a youth in Southern California who got off on violence. He fixed razor blades to the tips of his boots. In one violent incident in Hollywood in the ’80s he nearly killed a gay teenager. In fact, for years he thought he had killed the young man. Years later, they’d meet again. This story, as covered by NPR, is an incredible tale of redemption and forgiveness.

A few years ago, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles asked him to speak about his experience leaving the skinhead movement. Before the talk, he found himself chatting with his fellow presenter, Matthew Boger, the manager of operations.

“I asked Tim how he got out of the skinhead movement and what that was like,” Boger recalls.

The pair reminisced about West Hollywood back in the ’80s.

“And there was this moment in which I said that I lived on the streets,” Boger says, “in which I said I hung out on this hamburger stand, and [Zaal] said, ‘You know, we used to hang out there, but we stopped hanging out there after this one night that was so violent, I think I killed a kid.’ ”

In a flash they both knew without saying that Boger was that kid.

Now Zaal and Boger present their story — and their unlikely friendship — to high school and middle school students around Southern California. They also do a tag-team presentation one Sunday every month at the Museum of Tolerance. It begins with a DVD film of their story and ends with a question and answer session.

Zaal says Boger used to bait him, and test him, to see if maybe those white supremacist ideas he held as a youth were still there, buried, in the grown man. But as time passed, both say that forgiveness — and redemption — have happened.

Byron Widner: Erasing Hate

Finally, here’s the story of Byron Widner, a former white power leader who wanted a new life, but had a hard time doing it given his body and face were both covered with white supremacy tattoos. In exchange for speaking at the Skinhead Intelligence Network conference, he got the Southern Poverty Law Center to pay for their removal. Widner is the subject of a documentary called Erasing Hate:

Question to ponder: How does our society’s reaction to reformed members of the KKK and other violent hate groups compare with other formerly destructive members of society, like felons convicted of non-race related crimes (and in some states are restricted from voting)? What do you think is your own level of forgiveness for any person who has tried to reform from violent pasts?

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.