‘A dark chapter of hate closes’: Notorious racist leader Tom Metzger dead at 82
Tom Metzger, a racist ideologue who became one of the most influential figures in the nation’s white supremacist movement and mentored a violent generation of neo-Nazis from his home in Fallbrook, Calif., has died.
Metzger, 82, died Nov. 4 in Hemet, according to a notice posted to his website and a paid obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune. A cause of death was not given.
Even though Metzger had largely faded from the spotlight in recent years, he continued until a few months ago to spread his messaging online, through social media and radio shows on his website.
“A dark chapter of hate closes with the passing of Tom Metzger — a notorious figure who helped to poison the hearts and minds of others with his xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry,” the Anti-Defamation League said Tuesday. “We can now relegate him to the dustbin of history and take a collective breath.”
Metzger identified as a white separatist, arguing that white people should live apart from all other races, and said in an email interview with the Union-Tribune in 2019 that he didn’t see himself fitting in with the current white supremacist movement, which he described as “being controlled by right-wing conservative elements.”
Still, he is widely viewed as a key influence to the glossier, media-savvy version of white supremacism on display today.
“It’s hard to talk about the modern white supremacist movement without putting it in a historical context, and when you do that it’s hard not to mention Metzger’s name,” said Jim McElroy, a San Diego civil rights attorney who clashed with Metzger regularly as part of a long-running court case.
Metzger, born in Indiana, ended up in Southern California after serving in the Army. He settled in Fallbrook and worked as a television repairman while exploring his own beliefs on politics, religion and race.
He joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1970s and was ultimately promoted to grand dragon, or head, of the group’s California contingent.
In 1980, Metzger set off on his own path.
“He left the Klan because it was too small for his grandiose plans,” recalled Morris Casuto, who served as regional director of the ADL in San Diego for more than 30 years before retiring in 2010. “At a time other groups to a degree tried to stay under the spotlight, Metzger loved the spotlight.”
Metzger and a newly configured Klan group that he founded soon after flexed their muscles with a rally in Oceanside that devolved into a clash with about 200 anti-Klan protesters.
“The white racists came dressed for war,” Casuto said, “helmets, goggles, gloves, bats, chains.” Police shot and killed a Klansman’s Doberman that had attacked a police dog and its handler.
That same year, Metzger ran for a North County congressional seat and won the Democratic primary. He lost badly in the general election, and he formed a new group, White Aryan Resistance. He saw promise in a relatively new racist-skinhead movement spreading across the United States at the time, characterized by thuggish violence, a certain style of dress and hate music.
“The skinheads literally frightened much of the white supremacist movement,” Casuto said. “For these guys, violence was part of their persona and almost part of their religion. Many racists avoided these guys. Not Metzger.”
Metzger became the leader and spokesman of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement nationally, spreading propaganda and recruiting members through a weekly cable television show, “Race and Reason,” which aired in major markets nationwide.
He also had a phone hotline and a newspaper. His phone number was widely disseminated, and he’d gladly take calls and meetings with youths who were exploring racism or with skinheads who wanted help taking their hate to the next level.
As his skinhead empire grew, so did interest from mainstream media. He and his acolytes, including his son, made the rounds on news channels and the talk show circuit, including the shows of Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera.
He claimed there was a “white civil war” and promised “blood in the streets,” but often managed to stay away from actual bloodshed. His words eventually caught up with him.
In 1988, Metzger dispatched one of his WAR leaders to Portland, Ore., to help organize a skinhead group there. Within weeks, three local skinheads beat to death an Ethiopian college student, Mulugeta Seraw.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League sued Metzger, WAR and others on behalf of the victim’s family for inciting the violence. At the trial, an SPLC lawyer played a phone message in which Metzger said one of the skinheads ″may have done a civic duty″ by killing Seraw, and in another, he said Ethiopians should get out of this country.
A jury awarded $12.5 million to the family.
McElroy, based in San Diego, joined the family’s legal team and had the duty of collecting on the judgment over the next 20 years.
The attorney helped sell Metzger’s Fallbrook house to a Latino family — “poetic justice,” McElroy said — and took half of all the money that was pouring in to Metzger from supporters around the world.
Broke, Metzger moved back to his hometown in Indiana.
McElroy gave the money to Seraw’s son, who was 7 in Ethiopia when his father was murdered. McElroy went a step further, inviting the boy to summer in the U.S. and eventually adopting him as a teen.
The son graduated from Torrey Pines High School, got a degree from UC Santa Barbara and is now an airline captain.
Metzger relocated back to Southern California recently to be near family and because he was “bored” in Indiana and found the state had “too much religion,” he said last year.
He looked down on the current white supremacist movement, saying, “As it is constituted at present, it would be better if it totally collapsed to be replaced by something much more radical.”
But McElroy points to an impassioned, prophetic speech that Metzger gave at the end of the trial in Portland that hinted at the more cloaked, mainstreamed white supremacist movement to come.
“The movement will not be stopped in the puny town of Portland. We’re too deep. We’re embedded now. Don’t you understand?” Metzger said. “We’re in your colleges. We’re in your armies. We’re in your police forces. We’re in your technical areas. Where do you think a lot of the skinheads disappeared to? They grew their hair out, went to college....
“I just did my little bit along the way, like your great salmon. I got up there and laid the eggs and now, if I die, no problem.”
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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