Frank Meeink, author of "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead," spoke at Iowa Central Community College Tuesday about his experiences.
Growing up under an abusive parent and half-Italian in the tough Irish neighborhood of south Philadelphia, Pa., Meeink actually became a skinhead because of a cousin who lived in the rural, mostly Amish community of Lancaster, and his friends.
"They could hate black people all they wanted because they don't live around many black people," he said. "They could use the n-word, because Amish people didn't (care). They didn't know. But I grew around people, so these people were intrigued I grew up this way."
These new friends made Meeink feel appreciated, like he had a family. And when the skinheads went into town to beat up people with mullets, Meeink enjoyed the fear that came from being a part of their group.
"Up to that moment in my life, I feared everything," he said. "I feared my parents, I feared home, I feared my school. Now someone feared me. I loved it."
Meeink eagerly volunteered at 14 to have his head shaved, and officially became a skinhead. Part of his initiation included learning "the truth" about Jews, which reinforced the sorts of bigoted jokes he would hear adults telling.
"When these guys were telling me this stuff, it started to unlock," he said. "I'm learning (stuff) adults know. I want that power."
In Philadelphia, Meeink began recruiting, joined groups and went to camps. He learned from the Bible, he said, though its stories were warped to reinforce their bigoted views. For example, the true story of Cain. He became a "proud Aryan Christian soldier."
"God chose you to know the truth now. You better accept it," he explained. "Every religion does this. Every religion has these groups."
Meeink had a swastika tattooed on his neck, and the words "Native Philly" tattooed on his head. He recruited easily, expanding his own group, and committed violent acts.
"I didn't get accolades from the neo-Nazi Christian Identity movement for doing good in school," he said. "I got accolades for violent deeds, and I liked that."
The tattoos, though, made Meeink highly identifiable. Soon, he was in juvenile detention. He became such a problem he was sent at 16 to live in Indianapolis to live underground. Many states had warrants on him, but none wanted to pay the cost of transporting him, and so the warrants were dropped, at which point he became "a wild beast."
In Springfield, Ill., now 17, Meeink began recruiting teens and started a skinhead cable access show, a great recruiting tool.
After kidnapping and beating a dissenting skinhead in his group, Meeink was tried as an adult and given a three-to-five-year prison sentence. In prison, he found fellow Aryans but got along also with Latinos and blacks. This did not change his beliefs, though, he said.
Meeink returned to Philadelphia, where he was greeted as a hero. Accepting blacks and Latinos and having no problem with Asians, his views steadily began to change, though he still held closely his hatred of Jews.
"You hate what you don't understand," he said. "I did not know any Jewish people in my life, so it was so easy for me to consider all the stereotypes I heard."
For money, Meeink worked moving furniture for an antiques dealer who was Jewish. This person's kindness and support made him ashamed to be a neo-Nazi.
"My higher power signs in human nature, and consistently kept proving me wrong," Meeink said.
Meeink got out of the movement, began talking about his experiences, teaching. He now speaks against bigotry, and serving as an example to others.
"We need to start stepping up and saying that is not acceptable," he said. "We can do this together. It's about being human beings."