Reporting and writing about a devout white supremacist’s change of heart taught Eli Saslow a lot of small lessons and two big ones, he told his John Hope Franklin Dinner of Reconciliation audience Thursday night.
One, people can change.
Two, ideas can be dangerous.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, Saslow recently published “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a White Nationalist,” the story of how a young star of white supremacy named Derek Black came to renounce not only his closely held ideology but his very birthright.
Black’s story, Saslow said, demonstrates that “the capacity for individual transformation is profound. If the … heir to this (white supremacist) movement can emerge as a rising anti-racist activist, that gives hope to people less far along the spectrum of embracing diversity and the truth of our history.”
But the other side of Black’s story is that ideas can be a destructive legacy, even after they are renounced by those who originated them.
“The hold of (white supremacist) ideas remains unbelievably powerful in our country,” Saslow told the crowd at the Greenwood Cultural Center. “Especially now. And unless we go about the work of doing something about that, we’re in a lot of trouble.
“The stakes are high,” he said, “but there is hope.”
Saslow become aware of Black while reporting on the 2015 murder of nine African-Americans by white supremacist Dylann Roof in a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
Saslow’s research into Roof’s background led him to Stormfront, a website he described as the “epicenter” of white supremacist discourse.
Stormfront was started by Derek Black’s father, Don Black, and Derek was the crown prince of the movement.
“Derek was really smart, almost a savant in some ways,” Saslow said. “He invested himself in the movement and was disastrously successful.”
Derek Black persuaded his father to ban racial and ethnic slurs from Stormfront and to take a less heavy-handed approach.
“He said, ‘The future of our movement is not through cross burnings. It’s through politics,’” Saslow said.
But by the time Saslow learned of him, Derek Black had renounced his white supremacist views and disappeared. On Stormfront, Saslow said, the conversation was, “How do we find him, and what are we going to do to him?”
Saslow found him first, and over the course of months persuaded Black to tell his story.
At 21, Black had enrolled at the New College of Florida, where he lived incognito for several months until he was recognized. Saslow said the campus responded in two ways, both of which had a strong effect on Black.
First, there were demonstrations that shut the campus down and jarred Black’s confidence.
Second, two Jewish students invited him to Shabbat dinner. Black accepted, and over time the dinners grew to include all sorts of people he had once considered inferior.
Black ultimately renounced white supremacy, which meant also cutting himself off from his family.
Saslow said he talked to Black after last month’s murder of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. He says Black feels responsibility for the attack and horror at the “seeds” he may have sown.
“He built a kids’ white supremacist website that had 1.5 million visitors,” Saslow said. “He doesn’t know how many people marched at Charlottesville (Virginia) because of him.”