Tom Metzger, a notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite who cultivated a generation of neo-Nazi skinheads as the founder and leader of the White Aryan Resistance, died Nov. 4 in Hemet, Calif. He was 82.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease.
Though Metzger had receded from public view in recent years, he was widely viewed as one of the most influential leaders in the white supremacist movement, responsible for organizing young neo-Nazi skinheads in the mid-1980s and ’90s and inciting them to violence.
He pioneered the use of television and radio to spread his racist and anti-Semitic views, including through his own public-access cable television show and appearances by him and his followers on talk shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera.
In 1990, a jury in Portland, Ore., found him, his son and the White Aryan Resistance financially liable for the racially motivated killing of an Ethiopian student two years earlier by three skinheads who were followers of the organization. The $12.5 million judgment, which included penalties against two of the skinheads, left Metzger financially ruined and diminished his influence, though he continued until recently to spread his racist views on social media in radio-style shows on his website.
“Tom Metzger spent decades working against core American values as one of the most visible hard-core white supremacists in the country,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. “And, unfortunately, his brand of hate likely will still linger long after his death.”
Thomas Linton Metzger was born April 9, 1938, in Warsaw, Ind. He settled in Fallbrook, Calif., about 55 miles north of San Diego, in 1961 after serving in the Army, where he learned electronics.
Metzger worked as a television repairman for 40 years and became interested in white supremacist ideology. He joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975 and was quickly elevated to the role of grand dragon, or state leader, for California.
In that role, he led other armed Klansmen on patrols of the U.S.-Mexican border in search of people entering the United States illegally. The patrols were dismissed as a publicity stunt, but they attracted considerable attention from the news media.
In 1980, after a falling-out with David Duke, the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at the time, Metzger severed his state group from the national organization and rebranded it as the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In March of that year, he and several dozen Klansmen armed with bats, chains and nightsticks clashed with anti-Klan demonstrators in Oceanside, Calif. Seven people were injured, one of them severely.
That same year, Metzger won a Democratic primary to represent part of the San Diego area in Congress. He received about 33,000 votes, more than a third of the total, but was resoundingly defeated in the general election. He ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1982, but lost badly in the Democratic primary.
Between those elections, Metzger formed his own hate group, the White American Political Association, to promote “pro-white” candidates for office. In 1983, he changed the name to White Aryan Resistance, or WAR.
The formation of WAR coincided with the rise of the skinhead movement in the United States. The skinheads “scared a lot of people on the right because of their comments on violence, their persona, their dress,” said Morris Casuto, who retired in 2010 after nearly 40 years as the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director in San Diego. “Metzger saw them as street soldiers, and he embraced them.”
One of Metzger’s primary recruitment tools was TV. He hosted “Race and Reason,” a show that aired on public-access channels across the country, where he featured guests who shared his views.
“Three years ago when cable was getting off the ground,” Metzger told the New York Times in 1986, “I realized that public-access channels were perfect for views like mine that were having trouble getting expressed.”
Metzger also published a newspaper and operated a telephone hotline and electronic bulletin board where skinheads could communicate with him and with one another.
In his 1990 book, “Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads and the Rise of a New White Culture,” James Ridgeway described Metzger as “the single person most responsible for drawing young people into the far-right political movement.”
Metzger is survived by his partner, Mary Arnold; six children; nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, according to a post on his website.
At the height of his influence, in 1990, Metzger was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League on behalf of the family of Mulugeta Seraw, 27, the Ethiopian student who was beaten to death in Portland by three skinheads who were followers of WAR.
A jury found that Metzger and his son, John, had incited skinheads in Portland to provoke confrontations with people of color and therefore should be held financially responsible for Seraw’s death. The jurors assessed $12.5 million in damages against WAR, the Metzgers and two of the skinheads.
Metzger was required to make monthly payments to Seraw’s estate for 20 years, the Southern Poverty Law Center said. WAR was reduced to operating as an online platform for Metzger’s racist views and propaganda.
Attorney James McElroy, the California lawyer who for years made sure Metzger made the payments, took no money for himself from the case. But he ended up with something priceless: a son.
McElroy became close with the victim’s family and eventually adopted the man’s son, who was 7 at the time of the killing and grew up to be an airline pilot. McElroy calls the bond with his son “the best fee that I ever got out of a pro bono case.”
Though his influence was diminished, Metzger continued to run a WAR hotline and published white supremacist pamphlets.