Kensington native Thomas Martinez - who said he'd never heard of the Holocaust when he first joined the Klan at age 16 - explained that groups such as the National Alliance, of which he also was a member, offered a confused, angry young man a sense of purpose and belonging.
"When you joined these hate groups, you'd have 20 guys at your door to help you," said Martinez, 50, in a phone interview after the event. "It was like being in a cult. All I read was books on race, nationalism and Nazism."
Martinez's lecture was the first in a series at Temple Sholom on pressing social issues.
Organized in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Delaware County Region, the four-part series - known as "Cracks in the Vessel: Repairing Our Broken World" - will continue on future Wednesday evenings, and will feature such topics as the situation in Sudan; Jewish/Christian relations; and an update on the Middle East.
While Martinez affirmed that hate groups are not as much of a threat today as they were 20 years ago - when The Order committed a series of high-profile robberies and killings, including the murder of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg - the era of the Internet and the burgeoning hate-music industry are helping to give neo-Nazi ideology new life among the young and disaffected.
Martinez wrote a 1988 book called Brotherhood of Murder, which was later made into a Showtime film starring William Baldwin, and now earns a living speaking about his hate-group experiences.
A Criminal Past
He dropped out of Thomas A. Edison High School in the early 1970s, and shortly afterward became attracted to the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan and even more radical groups. Eventually, he led a criminal life as a counterfeiter, an activity that helped finance neo-Nazi activities.
(While Martinez might not sound like a name fit for a white-supremacist group, he pointed out that his grandparents were from Spain, and that he was accepted by these groups as a white European.)
His life changed when he was arrested in 1984 for passing a counterfeit $10 bill.
Martinez said that his breaking point came when he discovered that members of The Order planned to kill the merchant who'd turned him in to police. He later went undercover and testified for the FBI in a 1988 federal trial in Arkansas.
"I knew that eventually I was going to be told to kill somebody," he said. Actually, some time later, when he was spying for the FBI, Martinez claimed that members of The Order did indeed ask him to assassinate civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees.
Out of fear for his safety - and the safety of his wife and three children - he uses a different name when he returns to private life and does not reveal where he lives. He does remain in close contact, however, with the Anti-Defamation League's Philadelphia office, and credits ADL regional director Barry Morrison with helping to turn his life around, and change his views about Jews and blacks.
Said Morrison: "I think it's courageous that he continues to do what he does. It shows that he has a very keen commitment to address the threat of bigotry.
"He is on a mission, and feels that he has a message to communicate, at some peril to himself."