By Isaac Tellechea and Chloe Rusek
R. Derek Black (‘10) is one New College’s most notable alumni. Black was born to father Don Black, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and founder of Stormfront, an Internet forum often considered one of the first major Neo-Nazi websites. Black was homeschooled starting in the third grade and as a result, his education was centered around his family’s white nationalist beliefs. At age 10, Black created a page on Stormfront meant specifically for children and often posted on it. As a young adult, he co-hosted a radio show with his father, called the Don and Derek Black Show, based in Florida that would discuss current events through a white nationalist lens. At the age of 21, Black came to New College as a white nationalist in search of a strong medieval European History and Classics program. During his time on campus, he found his beliefs challenged by others in the community. In 2013, a couple of months after Black’s graduation from New, he wrote an article for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) where he renounced his previous views. Over the years since he’s graduated, Black’s story has been documented and revisited time and time again, as a shining example of how a progressive liberal arts institution can facilitate positive change by teaching students how to think critically.
When the New College community initially discovered Black’s upbringing, the response was quite negative. Black was studying abroad in Germany in Spring 2011 when the student email forum began buzzing about his family history and values. Upon his return in Fall 2011, the original post on the forum had more than 1,000 replies, becoming the largest thread in the forum’s history. Many of these messages were hateful, asking why someone like Black would even choose to attend the school. This negative attention led to Black living off-campus and avoiding public places at New College.
When he was seen on campus, students would ignore him or make rude gestures at him in passing. This ostracization inspired Black to organize a conference for white nationalists in Tennessee. When a student caught wind of Black’s plans to go deeper into the world of white nationalism, details for the conference were posted to the forum.
Responses were different than the initial post on Black; many messages suggested that students treating him poorly would accomplish nothing and that a different approach would be necessary to bring about real change. Matthew Stevenson (‘10) decided to take initiative and extend Black an invitation to one of his weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners.
Stevenson was the only Orthodox Jewish student at New College in 2011. At these weekly dinners, he would cook in his dorm and recite Hebrew blessings. Any interested students would be invited to join and break bread, regardless of religion or race. Stevenson believed that the most effective way to change Black’s mind was to include him. This invitation from Stevenson was the first time Black had been reached out to since the forum broke the news of his past. Black’s attendance at his first Shabbat dinner was polite and pleasant, which led to him becoming a weekly guest at Stevenson’s on-campus home for months. The two began to strike up a genuine friendship, which eventually opened up to other members of the Shabbat group.
With help from the friends made through this Shabbat group, Black was gradually able to reexamine and question his views. In his final year at New College, he decided it was time to finally speak up and broadcast his statement to the student forum. Although he had previously clarified points of his beliefs; he was pro-choice on abortion, against the death penalty and didn’t believe in violence, the KKK, Nazism or white supremacy. His primary beliefs at the time were centered around the idea that each race had rights, but were better off living in their own separate homelands.
“It’s been brought to my attention that people might be scared or intimidated or even feel unsafe here because of things said about me,” Black started in the opening of his forum post to the New College community. “I wanted to try to address these concerns publicly, as they absolutely should not exist. I do not support oppression of anyone because of his or her race, creed, religion, gender, socioeconomic status or anything similar.”
After sending out the message intended only for students, the letter was leaked to the SPLC who keep many public files on racist leaders and groups. Later, Black published a letter on the SPLC website addressed to the public titled “A ‘GRADUAL AWAKENING’” where he discussed the leaked content and provided insight into his perspective.
“I was not ready for it to go public,” the letter reads. “A large section of the community I grew up in believes strongly in white nationalism, and members of my family whom I respect greatly, particularly my father, have long been resolute advocates for that cause… I was not prepared to risk driving any wedge in those relationships and I did not believe that was necessary. The number of changes in my beliefs during the past few years, however, has amounted to a shift that I think needs to be addressed.”
He moved into a conversation about his journey of “disentangling” himself from white nationalism, along with some of the misinformation that had been previously published in news articles.
“I haven’t posted on Stormfront in 2013, and I only posted once in all of 2012,” Black wrote. “I am closing my Stormfront account. Also, in the last article written about me, the SPLC reported that I attended a ‘European American Leadership Seminar’ in 2012, when in fact I did not. And while I did speak at last year’s Stormfront conference, I am not involved this year at all and will not be attending.”
Following the letter’s posting, Black’s family had effectively disowned him, and his father had the same difficulty as others believing in this dramatic shift. After returning home to a cold welcome for his father’s birthday, the family decided to go out to dinner where Don Black desperately tried to come up with an explanation to his son’s behavior, insisting that “he had become a hostage to liberal academia and then experienced empathy for his captors.”
“That’s so patronizing, how can I prove this is what I really believe?” Black recalled saying to his father.
Since his ideological reform, Black has worked tirelessly to remove himself from his past. He moved across the country to finish his master’s degree, learned Arabic, began studying Islam’s history and broadened his horizons even more through traveling.
“I acknowledge that things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all and others affected,” Black’s SPLC letter reads. “It was not my intention then, and I will not contribute to any cause that perpetuates this harm in the future. Advocating for redress of the supposed oppression of whites in the West is by its nature damaging to all others because of the privileged position of white people in these societies. Promoting a victim complex for whites does not recognize the oppressed experiences of others not in the position of a white person in society, and that’s what my efforts have done.”