The former grand dragon of the California chapter of the Ku Klux Klan became one of racism’s most prominent figures after he left that organization in the 1980s to form the White Aryan Resistance movement.
He eventually was pushed into the shadows and financial ruin for his organization’s role in the 1988 beating death of Ethiopian college student Mulugeta Seraw in Portland, Ore.
Seraw’s family won a $12.5 million judgment against Mr. Metzger, his organization and others in 1990 after a trial in which a recording was played of Mr. Metzger praising the killers for performing what he called their “civic duty.”
Mr. Metzger lost his San Diego-area home, his television repair business and other assets. Although left penniless, he continued to produce a racist newsletter for years and operated a racist hotline, taking calls personally.
“Tom Metzger spent decades working against core American values as one of the most visible hardcore white supremacists in the country,” said Anti-Defamation League chief executive Jonathan A. Greenblatt. “Throughout his life, he engaged in a wide range of hateful activities from spreading anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric to launching vigilante border patrols as a California Klansman to recruiting skinheads to the white supremacist cause.”
The killing of Seraw left racial wounds in Portland that continue to this day, said Randy Blazak, a former sociology professor at Portland State University who has written extensively about hate groups.
“We became known as Skinhead City. We had racist skinheads and anti-racist skinheads doing battle in the streets, which is sort of a precursor of antifa and the Proud Boys,” he said, referencing those involved in recent violence that have gripped the city.
Thomas Linton Metzger was born in Warsaw, Ind., on April 9, 1938. He served in the Army from 1956 to 1959 before settling in California and pursuing a career as a TV repairman. His wife, Kathleen Murphy, died in 1992. They reportedly had six children.
He ran for Congress from northern San Diego County in the early 1980s, winning the Democratic Party primary but losing by a landslide in the general election after Democrats and Republicans united against him.
He became a prominent media figure during those years, appearing on TV talk shows, organizing white supremacist demonstrations and cross burnings, and promising a white civil war that would result in “blood in the streets.”
His son, John Metzger, and other white racists appeared on Geraldo Rivera’s TV talk show in 1988 and brawled with Roy Innis and other Black civil rights activists. Rivera suffered a broken nose during the televised mayhem, which created a national furor.
Mr. Metzger’s downfall began after he sent one of his White Aryan Resistance members to Oregon to organize a local Nazi skinhead group. Within a month, local skinheads had beaten the 28-year-old Seraw to death with a baseball bat. They later admitted they singled him out because he was Black.
The civil judgment stemming from the killing was devastating for Mr. Metzger, said Elden Rosenthal, one of the attorneys who represented the Seraw family. Another attorney, James McElroy of San Diego, arranged the sale of Mr. Metzger’s house to a Latino family to help satisfy the judgment.
“Poetic justice,” said McElroy, who went on to adopt Seraw’s 7-year-old son.
The racial hatred he fomented continues to this day, McElroy and Rosenthal said.
“At the time, I looked at him as totally on the fringe,” Rosenthal said. “What we have unfortunately learned over the last 30 years is that there’s a whole lot of people who share his views. . . . At the time it seemed fringy, now it seems a bit frightening.”
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