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A 'Recovering Skinhead' On Leaving Hatred Behind
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Many Americans are concerned about increasing polarization in our political
discourse and a rise in hate groups and extremist organizations. Our guest,
Frank Meeink, knows something about hate. He was once one of the most notorious
young neo-Nazis on the East Coast. He had a five-inch swastika tattooed on his
neck and the words skinhead tattooed across his knuckles.
After serving a prison term for a violent assault, Meeink questioned and
eventually renounced his beliefs, and he now speaks to students and youth
groups about racial and religious tolerance. He also runs a program called
Harmony through Hockey, which recruits kids from diverse backgrounds to learn
and play together. Meeink tells his story in a new memoir with Jody Roy called
"Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead."
Meeink grew up in a tough, row-house neighborhood in South Philadelphia, where
street fights and drug dealing were common. He was born to teenage parents who
soon split up, neither of whom had much time for him. He told me things went
from bad to worse when he was living with his mother and her boyfriend John,
who was always hard on him, became physically abusive.
Mr. FRANK MEEINK (Author, "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead"): Yeah, it
did get physical. And once it got physical, like, it happened, and then it
started happening regularly. Like, it took a little while for it to start, and
it took just a couple slaps here and there. Then he punches me in the head, he
split my mouth open once, and then the last one, where he literally knocked me
out and basically drug me and beat the crap out of me up to my room.
And he tried to hit me with my "E.T." lamp. And I remember, that was that one
moment in life where, when I curled after he got done hitting me and he tried
to hit me with the lamp, I curled up on my floor and I gave up. And that was
the one time where I just said: If you're going to kill me, just do it. I'm
just done. I was 13 years old, and I was just done.
That last whooping that he gave me, and I was on the ground, he told me I'm out
of the house, that I have to go live with my real father. And I just remember
freedom. I just remember thinking: Thank God it's over with.
DAVIES: There was a period, then, when you lived with your father in southwest
Philadelphia, and I gather that you went to a mostly black high school - or was
is it a middle school?
Mr. MEEINK: Middle school.
DAVIES: A middle school, right, right. So what was that experience like?
Mr. MEEINK: Going to school, there was maybe about 20 white males from my
neighborhood, because my dad lived in a small, little white section up there.
We'd all take the trolleys together, get off at the - get off at, like, 84th
Street, and you can walk it. It was like three or four blocks to our school.
But there was this big housing project right there, right dead smack in the
center of this little trip you would have to take, and there was also, like,
Bartram Freshman Center, which was a freshman high school for basically all the
black kids from that local neighborhood.
So all the white kids, we'd get off the trolley, and one kid, we'd wait for
everyone to get together, and one kid would just say, all right, on your mark,
get set, go. And as fast as we all could, we'd just run to school. It was like
a game. We did it every morning. We were like the gazelles, hoping the tigers
didn't get us.
And I was always one of the fastest because I'd always beat everyone to school.
And then once you got to school, it didn't get much better. It got a little
better because there was - at least kids didn't want to get into too much
trouble, or they knew they couldn't beat on you for 20 minutes. But it was just
horrible to go to school there.
And I talk to white kids now who were males that went to school with me and
went to school before and after me, and they - all of them have said it's never
changed. So it was tough.
DAVIES: Now, to what extent was the racial hatred that you embraced later, do
you think, a product of those early experiences in the neighborhood and in your
Mr. MEEINK: That school was what did it for me, really. Growing up in South
Philly, where we just had, like, this Irish pride thing, I never really thought
of the other one, the other races or other people that lived around us as
inferior or as much trouble because, you know, most of the kids, the trouble
you got into or fistfights you got into were with other Irish kids.
We all knew each other. So it wasn't this big I hate them. It was just more an
us-them. Once I got up there, I noticed that the us was very, very small, and
the them was very, very big, and there was no one helping me. There was no one
helping me, and I think that's where it started, because it was that summer
that this all started to manifest into a movement for me.
DAVIES: So how did you get introduced to the neo-Nazi movement?
Mr. MEEINK: I went up to the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area. And I'm up there,
and my family, some of my mom's - her sister, my aunt and uncle moved up there
with their kids, so my cousins. And I was very close with all my cousins.
And I went up there. By this time, now, too, I've got to tell you, I'm, like,
getting into skateboarding. I'm up and down South Street skateboarding, even as
a young kid. So my cousin that lived up in the Lancaster area was very punk
rock, very into skateboarding, and I couldn't wait to get up there that summer
and live up there the whole summer. That was the summer I was getting out of
So I go up there, and he's not a skateboarder anymore. He's not a punk-rocker
anymore. He's this skinhead, and in his room, he had swastika flags and stories
about Adolf Hitler and stories about skinheads. And coming around the South
Street and the skater and the punk scene, I knew of skinheads, but I really
just, you know, didn't know all their beliefs or anything yet, and he kind of
introduces me to it.
And he just says, you know, this is what it is. And now, every night, all these
other skinheads would come over to his house and come drinking and listening to
music, and they would always give me a couple beers. I was the young kid to the
group. You know, they're all 15, 16, 17-year-old guys who were cool to me. And
they give me a beer, and they start talking multi-racial society will never
work. Now, I have no idea what that means at all.
DAVIES: For the audience that isn't familiar with the area, the Lancaster area
where your cousin lived and where you got introduced to these ideas is, unlike
the streets of Philadelphia, a very rural area. A lot of Amish folks live in
those communities. And the South Street area that you referred to is kind of a
hip street in Philly at the time where there were a lot of shops, and a lot of
young people liked to hang on. Yeah, tell us about, you know, the ideology, I
mean, the beliefs that you heard in those days, and what were persuasive about
Mr. MEEINK: Well, when they would say these bigger words and bigger terms of
multi-racial society, I had no idea. But when I would ask in depth what that
meant, they would say about blacks and whites not getting along. And I would
say: I know exactly what you guys are talking about.
And now we're sitting around, and now they start saying, oh, that's right. You
went to school in Philadelphia. And what's it like? These kids have never
really been down to the city, so I'm their key. So they're asking me what it's
like to go to school there, and I'm telling them it's horrible. I hate it. It's
And for me, when I look back on that now, that was someone finally saying to
me: How is your life? How are you doing? How is your school? Because my parents
- I never got home from schools, and my parents, never said: How was school
today? What did you learn? They never did that to me. So, for once, someone's
asking me how my life is, and they wanted to hear it because they wanted to
hear about the city.
So now we all go to this concert together one night, and they bring me with
them, and I'm like this little skateboarder, punk-rock kid with all these
skinheads. So when we get in, my cousin says, in front of everyone: When we get
in, I want you to stand over here because there's going to be a lot of fights
tonight, and you might accidentally get beat up because you have hair, and
we're going to beat up everyone that doesn't have hair, basically.
And we're in this club, and this big fight's breaking out, but this bigger
skinhead says no, I've got him, and he puts me on his shoulders, and he goes
into this mosh pit or the dance pit, and he starts hitting this guy.
And he spins this guy around, and he's holding him by his hair, and he goes:
Kick him, Frank, kick him. And I started kicking him. And the bouncers come and
they kick us all out, and we stand around, and we wait for all the other
skinheads to get kicked out in the fight.
And as I'm standing there, here come all the guys we just got in the fights
with, and all the skinheads are, like, hey, you know, you want to finish this
outside? Hey, you got something to say to us now? And I'll never forget how
good it felt to be on that end of the whoopings finally. I finally wasn't the
one getting beat down, and I loved it. So we go back up to my cousin's house,
and that's the night they asked me when would I shave all that crap off my
head. And I said let's do it.
DAVIES: You know, as I read this part of the book, it occurred to me that you
came into contact with these folks, you were 14 - which is an age at which a
lot of young people will embrace a new belief system or ideology.
And I wonder if, looking back on it, do you think maybe you became a skinhead
because those were the people that cared about you, and that's the belief
system them brought? I mean, if they had been radical leftists or, you know,
new age - bringing a new age philosophy, you could've gone a different
Mr. MEEINK: Absolutely. I could've been one of the kids at the airport, Hare
Krishna. I mean, I could've been anything. I mean, that's - I was open. I mean,
there was a lot of anger there, and that's what they knew, too, is I was this
kid that was like a shaken-up soda bottle, and - that was just waiting for
someone to open it and spray it in the direction they wanted it to go, and it
just happened to be this movement.
So, I mean, I was an angry, angry child and becoming an angry teenager, and
this group fit me well. And I really - you know, and as you read in the book, I
really thrive in that.
DAVIES: We're talking with Frank Meeink. We'll speak more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Frank Meeink. He spent
several years as a skinhead neo-Nazi, and his book is called "Autobiography of
a Recovering Skinhead."
So when you committed to the skinhead movement and considered yourself part of
the, you know, the neo-Nazi movement, you moved back to Philadelphia. Talk a
little bit about your lifestyle. How did you spend your days?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, I tried to go back to school when I came home. I was accepted
into high school, went to high school for a couple weeks, and the high school
scene that I was - going to be a big problem. I had already gotten into a
couple fights, and it just - all the white kids were kind of gravitating
And so the school kicked me out, and they sent me back to elementary school,
which was the worst thing you could've done, because now I'm older, bigger, and
I go back to elementary school, which was a lot of kids that were same age
because we all got left back a lot. But - and I went to elementary school and
did eighth grade again.
And that was trouble, because now I started recruiting all the younger kids in
my neighborhood into this that were going to school with me. So I - what
happened was I needed to have people that weren't just coming down from the
farms and hanging out with me. I needed people that were there seven days a
week, and so I started recruiting all these kids out of my local elementary and
the high school. And we started getting known for having a big crew in
DAVIES: And when, you know, you would spend a lot of time down in South Street
- that was this commercial area where a lot of kids hung out. There was an area
that you referred to as Skinhead Alley, right, where the skinheads would hang?
Mr. MEEINK: Yes.
DAVIES: And what would you - I mean, how did you spend your days and your
evenings? I mean, were there political meetings, or was it - what did you do?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, basically, what we do is we would all meet down around South
Street, and then we'd have guys come in from the suburbs, getting off the
public transit system, and we'd hang out down there.
There wasn't much political talk. It was more just skinhead talk. And skinhead
talk is, it's violent, and what we did was we would drink and get ourselves
revved up, and then we'd go out and we'd do missions. And missions could be
anything from spray-painting a synagogue to going gay-bashing, homeless-bashing
or fighting leftists. We would know some leftist groups that were down there.
So we'd do all these little things, and that was our camaraderie. That's how we
got along. Like, we didn't go out and shoot hoops together or shoot a hockey
puck. We went out and we did violence, and then we'd, you know, we'd talk about
it. And we wanted people to know that the Philly crew was up and coming and
young and violent and crazy, basically.
So - but the political movements we'd go to maybe once a month. We'd go out to,
like, a Klan rally or a Klan march or Christian Posse Comitatus, which is up in
Pottstown. We'd go out to these Aryan groups, and we'd listen to their
DAVIES: And there came a point at which you made your way to the Midwest. I
think - in fact, as I recall, I mean, it looked like the cops were after you in
Philly, and so some of your white supremacist friends got you to Indiana, and
you ended up kind of resettling in Springfield, Illinois and starting up a crew
there - kind of replicating what you did in Philly, in a way. How did you
become so well-known? By the time you went to prison, you were a well-known
neo-Nazi. How did your fame spread? What did you do to get attention?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, the first thing I had done is did a lot of national
television shows, like with Ted Koppel and some other news organizations. I -
so I'd been kind of a face, and it just happened. You know, it's not one of
those things where someone said: You are our face of our movement.
I did one TV show. They liked me, you know, because, basically, I looked like a
nut. So they wanted me on their other shows, again, you know, swastikas on
people's necks, on a young kid's neck sells a TV show. So now I did a couple
shows like that, and I kind of made a name of or myself. And then when I went
out to the Illinois area, I wasn't getting much media press, but I was really
into getting people to get this thing started, so I got my own cable access
So I just went to the local cable access channel and signed up for a show,
called it "The Reich," like Hitler's Reich and the Third Reich, and started a
talk show about being a skinhead. So everyone got to know me from this talk
show, and it really went on from there. You know, what I'd do to recruit kids
from that show is - it was easy. I mean, I would just go on and say this is
what I'm into. Then the media would pick up on it, and they'd write newspaper
articles, and then I'd go hang out at the local high school.
DAVIES: You know, I have to say, as I read the stories of this part of your
life, there was innumerous amounts of violence inflicted randomly, often - it
seems as often on white kids who you didn't like as much as minority kids.
And so you were really violent, but it seems that you spend an awful lot of
time drinking beer and partying and not very much at, you know, staging
demonstrations or running candidates for the local school board, the kinds of
things that a developing political movement might devote itself to. And I kind
of - as I thought about it, I wondered: Do you think you really were an
effective political movement, or were you kind of more like gangs that just
inflicted violence almost randomly?
Mr. MEEINK: No, I would definitely say we were closer to a gang than a
political movement. But then again, we also idolized the brownshirts in
Germany, who went - and that's what they did. If you didn't like their
candidate, they went and they beat you up.
Now, we didn't have candidates out there like that, but what we did was - that
was kind of our idol. We just didn't have the candidates running, you know, for
So - but we definitely had a political view, so - but we definitely were closer
to gangs. You're right on point with that.
DAVIES: Yeah. And I guess the other inference I'm drawing here is that I wonder
if a movement like yours, which was young people who wanted to party and then
inflict random violence, as awful as that is, is not as much of a threat to
democracy as, you know, an organization that really gets organized and brings
converts in large numbers and, you know, builds some kind of political and
Mr. MEEINK: No. But we are definitely the people that they recruit from. A lot
of the people - as the members of our groups get older, they start getting
pulled into some of those groups. So we're kind of the beginning stages of
that. You know, it depends on who - what beliefs stick with them. So we're a
stepping stone up to some of those bigger groups, maybe the militia groups and
stuff like that.
DAVIES: Were you happy then?
Mr. MEEINK: No. I would think I was, but, I mean, obviously, I wasn't. I was an
egomaniac with low self-esteem who was violent and not a good person to be
around. You know, the people that stayed friends with me, I don't know how they
did. I was not a good person. So I don't believe I was happy.
DAVIES: Describe the crime that landed you in prison.
Mr. MEEINK: Well, there was this lefty-type skinhead who hung around us in
Springfield, and he was the only one. And him and my roommate - him, me and my
roommate kind of had a falling out. I didn't - my roommate didn't like him. I
didn't like him. And I didn't like, mainly, his political beliefs.
So I called him over: Come over to our house on Christmas Eve for a Christmas
party. And when he came over, there was no Christmas party. It was just me and
my roommate waiting for him. And we kidnapped him, and we randomly beat this
other human being for hours and videotaped the whole thing as a joke. And
that's eventually what got me put in prison.
DAVIES: It sounds like it's still hard for you to talk about.
Mr. MEEINK: Well, sometimes I think about him, you know, and I have run into
him, and I have got to apologize to him, or make an amends. I didn't apologize.
I made an amends to him. But that's another human being on this earth, and, you
know, at the time, I thought I had all the right to do that. And now I know the
truth, and the truth is that I had no right to do that to another human being,
another person that has a soul and could also be closer to a higher power.
Like, how dare me believe that? But that - it is what it is.
DAVIES: You describe this terrible crime in which you and a friend beat another
man for several hours and videotaped it. The videotape ended up in the hands of
police, and you went to prison. How did your time in prison affect your
political and racial views?
Mr. MEEINK: In prison, it never affected it, but there was things going on in
there that later on came back. You know, and what had happened was as soon as I
get in there, you know, all the Aryans, the Aryan Brotherhood, Aryan Nations,
even just some of the white groups, all knew me. They all knew of this kid with
the television show, and I was like a little celebrity once I got in there.
So I get in there and I want to play sports, and so sometimes, me and the
Aryans and some of the bikers, we go out and we play football, and it wasn't
fun for me. It was, you know, I remember one game, it was like 12 of them
versus me because - and it was just not fun.
So due to the fact that I was so good, that was the reason why it was not so
fun. So anyway, one day I went out, and I'd seen some of the black inmates that
I'd seen on my cellblock. They were playing a game of football or about to play
a game of football. And I said yo, let me play.
And at first, they're like, come on, skinhead. You don't want to play. And I
said, yeah, no, I want to play. So they're like, all right, you can play and
you can do kickoff returns - knowing that no one's going to block for me, and
there's going to be some missed assignments on that kickoff return.
So I get the ball, and I run up the field, and I'm doing these little spin
moves. I'm kind of a shorter guy. I'm only 5'7", but I'm pretty - a little bit
stocky in the leg area. So I'm pretty fast, and I do some of these spin moves,
and I'm just gone, and I run the first one back.
And after that, a lot of the guys started asking me to play more, and then I
played basketball. More or less, I played mostly basketball, and I was really
good, and they didn't care that I was this skinhead. So they just would play.
And the Aryans never cared that I was playing. It's different than what people
would think. They just thought I was just a white boy showing them up. You
know, they didn't - they didn't think of it as changing me.
But the key was when we'd walk back to our cells, there was a couple guys that
I'd play with every sport, just guys I got to know and say hi to, and, you
know, when you play sport against other people, you kind of bond a little bit.
But when we were walking to our cellblocks, we always talked about the same
thing, every time, and that was girls. What's your girl situation going? Do you
have a girlfriend on the outside? Do you have any babies on the way? I had a
baby on the way, so - and one of those guys had a baby on the way. And we were
all doing, you know, three, you know, three-year bits, a year-and-a-half.
So when got around your older inmates that were my color, maybe some of the
Aryans or some of the bikers, and I'd say, oh, I have my girlfriend. She's
going to have our baby. Wait until I get out. We're going to have a great life.
They'd always say in pretty graphic detail what my wife - or what my girlfriend
was doing to guys outside right now. They'd be, like, just get over it. That's
what they do.
You know, and that would break me. That would break my heart and just - and
they'd say it as a joke, but they would say it because that's what older
inmates do. But these guys that I would play sports with, whenever we talked
about girls, we'd always kind of say to each other what I wanted to hear. So
I'd always say, man, your girl's going to wait for you.
DAVIES: And these were the black guys that you're saying that you had...
Mr. MEEINK: These are the black kids, yeah. I mean, we were kids. We were 17,
18-year-old kids in this adult prison. So we just kind of would talk. And then
finally, my girlfriend did break up with me. It was kind of just like the
Aryans was going to happen. So she kind of breaks up with me in this letter,
but says that she still loves me. And there is no one I wanted to read it to,
and except there was this guy I played sports with.
So I went down to his cell, and he was a black guy, and I just said, hey, I got
to read this letter to you. And he said sure. And I read this letter, and I
remember him saying: But she says she still loves you in the letter. So maybe
there's still hope. And no one else in the world would've said that to me.
DAVIES: Frank Meeink's new memoir is called "Autobiography of a Recovering
Skinhead." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Frank Meeink, a former neo-Nazi who's written a memoir
called "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead." Meeink grew up poor and
neglected and became a violent skinhead as a teenager. He was serving a prison
term in Illinois for a savage beating he inflicted when relationships he
developed with black inmates caused him to question his racial views.
You could've served a lot longer sentence, but there was a lot of overcrowding
in Illinois at the time and so you got out, you know - what? After less than
two years. Is that right?
Mr. MEEINK: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yup.
DAVIES: And you kind of went back to the skinhead community but it really
wasn't the same. I mean, your thinking had evolved. What marked your withdrawal
from the neo-Nazi community?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, I remember it started - actually, it had already come to me
that, you know, maybe I needed to start looking at some things. But I still
always thought my purpose in life - God wouldn't have put me in the purpose of
being an Arian Christian soldier if he didn't want me here. So I'm still trying
to say, all right, there's something going on, but I got to stick with this,
because this is where I am. This is my team.
But I'm on a train one day, all right, and I'm talking to this black dude. He
just sits down next to me and he asked if I had done prison time. He'd seen all
my tattoos, and me and him start talking about prison life and how we get away
with things and sneak things away from guards and, you know, sneak food out all
this - you know, just prison talk.
So he get's off. He says, hey man, real nice to meet you. You're real down-to-
earth. And this is on the - we were on L train. So he gives me a pound and I
say, yeah, it's nice meeting you. And I get off and I walk up to this skinhead
meeting that night, and these are all old recruits of mine in Philadelphia.
These are all guys I got into this. And we're meeting up with some New York
skinheads, and they were coming down to get an alliance going.
And I'm sitting at this party and I'm drinking, and I hear this one Irish
skinhead start going - well, first of all, there's like a lot of just racial
jokes, because everyone's been drinking now. It's just kind of stupid, ignorant
jokes, and I'm not laughing at them and I'm thinking about guys that I just did
time with, and some of them guys I shared some of the most inmate parts of my
life with, about my family and stuff. So I'm just thinking about them.
And one of the guys stands up, and he starts saying about Italians ain't white.
And now, I'm half-Irish, half-Italian, so I let him sit for a second, and he's
one of the New York guys. He doesn't know half of us are Italian in the Philly
crew, and he says, you know, the mongoloids came along and they took over
Italy. I mean, Italians ain't white. And I said, hey buddy, I'm half-Italian.
What do think of that? And he says, okay. He knows I'm kind of the head guy, so
he just - kind of the whole party stops. And he looks over at me and he goes -
you see, I'm half-Irish, half-Italian. And he goes, oh, half's okay. You can be
half Italian. That's okay.
So I sit back down and noticed the guy kind of took back what he said just out
of whatever, respect. So then we're sitting there and I kind of stood him up
when I said it, so as we're sitting there and everyone starts talking again and
he said something stupid again about it. And I said, well, how about my
daughter? My daughter's probably more than 75 percent Italian. So you're saying
she's not white? So now the guy's got to save face. So he goes nope, she ain't
white. And I just beat the crap out of this guy in this party.
Now these are all skinheads, so they start breaking the fight up. And I get
everyone off of me, and I say I'm out of here. And I walk back down and I'm
going to go catch the train back home. I'm by myself, and I had been drinking a
little bit. And I remember looking up at God and I just - I said God, maybe
there's something wrong. Maybe you're right, maybe on the black, Asian and
Latino issue. Maybe we are all equal.
So I said but, you know, I'm still always going to hate the Jews. Just - that's
it. That's because it's kind of something that I never got to meet to yet, you
know? So I go back, and my South Philly friends I grew up with, kids that never
got into the skinheads, they kind of took me in. They seen I was kind of
hanging around the streets a little bit more, and they kind of saved me from
that. So with that, I just started to think maybe a little differently, but not
DAVIES: You said that your thinking had evolved on a lot of racial groups, but
not Jews. What changed that?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, one day I was home in on the streets of South Philly, and I
couldn't find work with the swastika on my neck and the skinhead written on my
knuckles just wasn't getting me any work. And a buddy offered me a job working
at an antique show, where you carry in and out antique furniture as people buy
it, and you put it in their car. And I said sure. He said the guy will pay $100
a day. I said I'll take it. I said I just need the work. And he said well, the
guy that runs the company, he's really Jewish, like very Northeast Philadelphia
Jewish, which to us meant very Jewish. And I said I don't care. I just need
work, and I said I don't got to talk to the guy.
And he said, you know, Keith said the same thing about you. Said, I told him I
hade a friend that was looking for some work and I told him you were a skinhead
and Keith said I don't care what his beliefs are, as long as he works hard. And
he had this antique show and some stores around the Philadelphia area, and I go
and I work for him that whole weekend. And I remember it was three days, so I
was supposed to get $300. I made more than that in tips alone, and this was all
at the Cherry Hill Mall.
And so when we get done, Keith's coming around. He's paying people here and
there and I think - this is in my head - I think this is where he's going to -
what we used to say - he was going to Jew me. He's not going to give me the
money that he says he's going to give me. It was easy work, and I made a lot of
So he comes up and he starts counting the money right in front of me and he
says, here's 100, here's 200, here's 300. Here's an extra 100 bucks because you
really worked really hard for me. Thank you. And I just said, you son of a gun.
You know, you're ruining my last good stereotype here, you know. This is my
last thing to hold onto, and he was a big Flyers fan. I was a big Flyers fan.
So he asked - offered me - to give me a ride home from the Cherry Hill Mall
over to - right over to South Philly, right over Walt Whitman Bridge. And as
we're driving, he says, well, what do you do for a living? And I said I don't
do anything. He said why don't you come work for me?
And that man showed me life. He showed me about the antique business. He was
the type of guy that if I told him I wanted to do something, he'd always say
you could do it, Frank. And one day I called myself stupid, and I used to do it
all the time. It was the thing in my head, I'm so dumb, or I'm so stupid. And
he said don't ever say that again. You're the most smart - street smartest
person I've ever met. I hate when you say you're stupid. And we're driving home
that day, and that was the day I decided that I was completely wrong.
DAVIES: You became a speaker on the subject of hate groups and racial
tolerance. But that really began with your going to the FBI. Tell us about
Mr. MEEINK: Well, I went to the FBI right after the Oklahoma City bombing. By
then, I had been out of the movement, and I see the result of what the groups
that we go into are those types of groups. And I'd seen that picture of that
fireman running down the street with that dead little girl in his arms. She's
all burned up, and I hadn't seen my daughter and that kept getting me, and I
felt so evil. For once - throughout my life, even when I was tattooed up and
wanting to be a skinhead, I felt maybe I was bad on the outside, you know,
tough, but I felt good in the inside. And that day, it switched.
I felt okay a little on the outside, but I felt so evil inside. So I had no one
to talk to. I never told to anyone in my neighborhood or my parents or anyone
my real whole story about the TV show and kidnappings and, you know, making
records for racist groups. So I went to the FBI because I knew they would
understand me and believe me. So I went to them and I told them my story and I
said I don't have any information on anybody, but I just need to let you know
what it's like. And, of course, they wanted to listen because the Oklahoma City
bombing had just happened. And that's how it started.
DAVIES: And then, in the end, I mean, you weren't really a criminal informant,
but they got you on a different path. How did that happen?
Mr. MEEINK: You know, it's kind of funny is the FBI guy, he kept calling me
back in and doing different interviews with me. And then he would start asking
me, you know, what's this person up to? And I'd say I don't know. You know, if
I knew that person was killing somebody, obviously, I would say hey, you need
to go check him out. But I really didn't know what certain people were up to
anymore because it had been a while, and I wasn't there for that. I really
never went there for that reason. So he said, well, why don't you go somewhere
where someone can really use you? And he mentioned the Anti-Defamation League.
He said we do some work, and they're a pretty good group. And I said, oh, them
people, they hate me. I know them. You know, I know who they are. And so I
called the ADL and said hey, I'd like to come talk to you. And they had a book
out about the top recruiters and the top movement going on in the '90s, and I'm
in their book, like, twice. So they don't trust me, and they come in and they
meet me in a hotel one day. They said meet us in the lobby of a hotel, and they
brought like this big, tall guy as kind of a bodyguard. And this guy from the
ADL in Philadelphia, Barry Morrison, just talked to me.
And we just sat and we talked, and I think he put me through some tests,
because he would say, was you there when this incident happened? And I'd say,
no, I wasn't there. And he'd say was you there when this happened? And I'd say,
yeah, I was there. So he knew that I was not trying to, you know, make myself
look bigger or smaller than what I was. I was just being honest. And he asked
me to talk to his staff, and I did. And then someone asked me to go speak to a
group of kids, and I went.
And if there was ever the worst speech ever given, was that day. I mean, I
cried in front of those kids. I mean, I think there was mucous coming out of me
as I'm crying because I was crying so bad. And I think I scarred some of them
children. So, later on, I got letters from all these little kids and - that
just said thank you for coming to our school, and I know I'll never judge
people. And I don't know how they got it out of me, but somehow they understood
what I was saying through all the blubbering. And that's what started me
DAVIES: You know, I want to ask you, if you could think back to when you were
14 years old and you were that kid from a broken home whose dad hung out in the
bar and didn't really have time for him and his mom hung out with a boyfriend
who beat him to the point where he had, you know, more bruises than self-
esteem, can you think of anything at that point in your life that an adult
would've done that would've changed your course?
Mr. MEEINK: I do, and then I don't. I know that by the time I got to a certain
point, I was too far gone. But I definitely think sports. If someone would've
really got me into sports and said, you can do this. You can achieve this. I
remember playing recreational football when I was a kid and my parents not
showing up for the games, you know, or showing up and then leaving early when
I'm, like, having a great game. But if now I'm getting in part of a community
and there's people that are guiding me to this and then they're backing this
up, like, hey, just keep going. You're good, you know?
And then again, if there was other kids that are having the same problems I am
and they're on the same team, you know, we know that it's tough to go home, so
we just want to sit at football practice or we want to sit at hockey practice.
I think sports is a huge way to blow off steam, to be guided - not just in
life, just like I do at my hockey program. I tell the kids every day when
they're at our hockey program, go home and do something nice for somebody and
don't tell them that you did it. Now, when you do like little things like that
and you're making them go achieve good things and tell them how good they're
going to feel once they do it, you know, it's, for me, the right way to go.
DAVIES: One more thing. You talk to a lot of young people nowadays, I gather.
Is the skinhead movement still alive?
Mr. MEEINK: Oh, yeah. It's still around, and it's the same numbers as maybe it
even was back then. You know, say, around 5,000 maybe active skinheads. But the
difference is now is it's through the Internet. When I was around, we contacted
each other through PO Box numbers, not email, you know, so - and not through
Web sites. So the Web has really got numbers looking like they're bigger than
they are. But you've got to remember, too, sometimes, those are just misguided
kids that are looking for anything.
But if your children are looking at these Web sites more regularly and they're
not looking at them for research, you need to step in and ask why and then ask
the right questions. And then that's another good way to go back to, like, the
Anti-Defamation League. They're great at handling that stuff. They have filters
on the computers that won't just say here, you can't look at this, but it'll
tell you: You're looking at this and here's the facts. You know?
DAVIES: Well, Frank Meeink, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MEEINK: Hey, thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Frank Meeink now speaks to youth groups about racial and religious
tolerance, and he's developed a program called Harmony through Hockey to bring
kids of different backgrounds together. His book is called "Autobiography of a
Recovering Skinhead." You can read the first chapter on our Web site
Coming up, we remember Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller, who died yesterday.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Remembering First Female Chief Of Cherokee Nation
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of a major Indian tribe,
died yesterday of cancer at her home in Oklahoma. She was 64. From 1985 to '95,
Mankiller was chief of the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the
U.S., with 290,000 members. She was known for her efforts to improve the
tribe's health, education and housing programs.
Mankiller was born into rural poverty in Oklahoma, but her family moved to San
Francisco when she was 11, and her father became a union organizer. She got an
education and became an activist in Native American issues.
Terry spoke to Wilma Mankiller in 1993, when her memoir, called "Mankiller,"
was just published. They began by talking about her name, which some people
assumed was some kind of feminist joke.
Ms. WILMA MANKILLER (Former Chief, Cherokee Nation; Author): Mankiller was
actually originally like a - it was almost like a military title. It was a -
given to someone who was kind of like a guardian of semi-autonomous villages
that were scattered throughout the Southeast. And this one fellow liked the
title, Mankiller, quite well, and he kept it for his name and that's who we
trace our ancestry back to. So it's my family name.
GROSS: Has that name given you a lot of trouble because of misinterpretations
over the years?
Ms. MANKILLER: I think that it surprises people because of the name. Iâm fairly
softspoken and people, sort of, have an image of what a woman named Mankiller
would be like, and I donât think that I really fit their image. And I know it's
an unusual name so I, you know, Iâm not defensive or offended by people's
reaction to it.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, your family was uprooted when you were a child - from
Oklahoma to California. This was through the Bureau of Indian Affairs
relocation plan. How did they convince your parents to move?
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I donât think it was that hard to convince my father,
because there were too many children. We were farmers. We farmed both for our
own food and also for to market some of our farm products, as well. And there
were - in the '50s, in the mid '50s when the Bureau of Indian Affairs
approached father about relocation - there were too many children and simply
not enough to go around.
GROSS: So your father was pretty sure that California would bring a better
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, he, you know, he had a vision that it would be a better
life for his children. Thatâs basically what the Bureau of Indian Affairs told
my family and my father, that there would be a better life for his children and
his family in California. And the better life ended up actually being a housing
project in San Francisco.
GROSS: Did the Bureau of Indian Affairs take care of you when you got to
California, or help you resettle?
Ms. MANKILLER: They helped resettle, but I wouldnât exactly characterize it as
taking care of us. We were put on a train in Stilwell, Oklahoma and having left
a very rural, isolated community with no electricity and no indoor plumbing, no
paved road near our house; and then two days later ended up in the Tenderloin
District in downtown San Francisco, with no kind of orientation at all. We
didnât know what to expect.
We couldnât conceptualize a city, because we had never seen one. They
facilitated our getting there to California from Oklahoma, but I wouldnât say
that they helped us.
GROSS: So, as an 11-year-old girl you went from rural life in Oklahoma, to the
San Francisco Tenderloin District - which is the district of prostitution and a
lot of alcoholism. Were you frightened when you saw all this? It was so alien
Ms. MANKILLER: I was very frightened. I remember, especially my younger brother
Richard and I, trying to figure to what the sound of sirens was. Because you
have to imagine that we had never heard sounds like that. So we imagined that
the siren was actually some kind of animal and we were trying to figure out
what kind animal it was, and that sort of thing.
And to go to school with children my age and having never used a telephone, or
not ever rode a bike or used roller skates, or any of those kinds of things. So
it was a tremendous adjustment.
GROSS: Tell us how you got politicized. It was about the time of the Native
takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.
Ms. MANKILLER: For me it was kind of like a watershed. All of sudden, people
were articulating things that I had felt but didnât know how to articulate -
talking about the treaty issues, about providing adequate health care and
educational benefits for Native people and that sort of thing. And so right
after that, my whole family became involved in the Alcatraz Island occupation.
Right after that I volunteered to work for the Pit River Tribe in California,
and worked for them for a number of years as a volunteer - and just sort of got
involved in the whole thing.
DAVIES: Wilma Mankiller speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. We'll hear more
after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to an excerpt of the interview Terry recorded in 1993,
with one-time Cherokee Nation Chief, Wilma Mankiller, who was the first woman
elected chief of a major Indian tribe. Mankiller died yesterday of cancer.
GROSS: There was a car accident that, you write in your book, changed your
life. This was, I believe, in 1979.
Ms. MANKILLER: Right.
GROSS: And you were actually hit by a very close friend of yours. Would you
tell us what happened?
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I donât know what the odds are against something like this
happening, but they have to be awfully great. I was in graduate school and I
was trying to live on a small scholarship and a graduate fellowship. And so I
asked the people at the Cherokee Nation if I could do some contract work.
And so I was driving from my home - took a day off from school - was driving
from my home to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah. And I guess she was in a
hurry. She was always, always drove too fast. And there were three cars in a
line and she was in a hurry, and she passed these cars and didnât see me coming
up a hill.
And so, I guess, we saw each other for a split second, because my car turned a
little to the right, and so did hers - to try to avoid one another we hit one
another head-on. And she was killed. And I, you know, had many, many injuries.
And it was very hard for me, because not only was I injured very badly and all
that, but I, you know, she - her death had a profound affect on me. I had, for
a long time, I guess, survivor's guilt. I didnât know that it was survivor's
guilt. But, you know, I felt very, very badly about her death.
In fact, they didnât tell me for about three weeks in the hospital that she had
even - that anyone had died, and nor did they tell me that it was Sherry. Her
husband would come and see me in the hospital and I'd say, well, where is
Sherry. And it was odd that he would come without her.
And then finally one day, I think they decided that eventually I was going to
get out of traction and all that and read newspapers, or talk to people and
someone would tell me. So they told me about her death.
It was a very difficult time for me. And so I - during that period of recovery
after the accident, I had a profound change and matured a lot, leveled off a
GROSS: You came very close to death in the car accident. And you write that
during that accident you lost any fear of death.
Ms. MANKILLER: Yes, I did. And it's a special gift, I think. Having been so
close to death - which, by the way, was the most wonderful feeling I've ever
had in my life. It was more profound than childbirth, or better than, you know,
the deepest love I've ever had with a man. It was an incredible, unbelievable
feeling of unconditional love and very, very tempting to go on to death.
And what kept me I think from going on to death was thoughts of my children
somehow or another came in that whole process. And then in a physical sense,
there was a nurse straddling me in the ambulance who was beating on me and
keeping my attention, and keeping me from slipping away.
But what was going on in my mind, really, was this sort of battle between
whether I should just go on with this wonderful feeling or come back. And so it
did have an impact on me. It made me not at all afraid of death. And also, I
think helped me understand my own insignificance in the totality of things, as
GROSS: You weren't feeling any pain after the accident? You were just feeling
this warmth and good feeling.
Ms. MANKILLER: No pain at all. No pain at all. I was so far away from physical,
you know, my physical self I think at that time, that I wasnât even aware that
the woman was, you know, was on top of me trying to keep me alive until someone
actually told me later. And so it was just sort of fighting this little battle
of whether I should go on with this enormous feeling of universal love.
And, of course, I thought I was the only one who had ever experienced that
until I later read books and talked with people who had also gone through the
same experience or similar experiences.
GROSS: Do you feel that you made a decision, at some point, to live?
Ms. MANKILLER: Yes, I do think I made a decision. And I donât remember the
exact sequence of events, but I remember that my two daughters came into the
process, somewhere or another in my mind or during that period of time, and
that I probably made a conscious decision to live at that point.
GROSS: Well, thatâs pretty remarkable you had this car accident, which your
whole body was shattered. Your whole face was shattered. And then after that
you lost a kidney to kidney disease. You had a form of MS that in which you
temporarily lost some nerve control.
It's just amazing to me that after this you were able to become chief to, you
know, maintain your energy and focus your energy and be a leader.
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I think it's actually because of those things that I've
been able to be a leader. And in a strange kind of way, sometimes very terrible
events can have a positive side-effect. And what those experiences taught me, I
think, is that that they taught me to be extremely strong. And they also taught
me to look at the larger things in life, rather than focusing on small things.
And it's also awfully, awfully hard to rattle me, truly rattle me after having,
you know, faced my own mortality a couple of times. So the things that I
learned during those experiences actually enabled me to lead. Without those
experiences, I don't think I would have been able to lead. I think I would have
been, you know, got caught up in a lot of nonsensical kinds of things.
DAVIES: That was an excerpt of Terry's interview with one-time Cherokee Chief
Wilma Mankiller, recorded in 1993.
Mankiller died yesterday of cancer. She was 64.
You can hear the full interview at our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you
can also download podcasts of the show.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, King of the Swing Fiddle, Johnny Gimble. At the
age of 83, he's still swinging and playing. He joins up with Vince Gill, Merle
Haggard, Willie Nelson and others on his new CD "Celebrating with Friends."
(Soundbite of music)
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