In one of the first seasons of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Oprah’s producers came up with a controversial idea: host a panel of white supremacist skinheads. The intention was to expose the group’s ignorance and confront their hate on national television. The reality, however, ended up being very different.
On that episode in 1988, the skinheads came with their own agenda and ended up being given an hour-long platform to spread their message of evil.
“Everything that’s created around here was created by white people,” said one white supremacist named Dave Mazzella. “Blacks, they still live in the jungles of Africa. White people teach these people; they didn’t create anything over here.”
“Violence is necessary when it’s brought to us,” added Mike Barrett. “We’ve had people come at us with bats, knives, stuff like that. Why? Because we were white.”
Another white supremacist then stood up and spewed that he refused to sit next to any black people because he saw them as “monkeys.” “It’s a proven fact,” he told Oprah.
“It’s a proven fact that I’m a monkey?” Oprah asked.
“Could be,” he shrugged, as the audience jeered.
Tensions escalated during that show, and during a commercial break, the skinheads ended up walking off set. Oprah explained to the television crowd what happened: “We asked our friend, Mr. Monkey Comment over here, to leave, and some other people followed him,” she said, gesturing to empty seats on the stage. “I have to agree with this woman down here who said, ‘I have never ... felt such evilness and such hatred in all of my life.’”
That was the show that changed how Oprah thought about TV. “I realized in that moment that I was doing more to empower them than I was to expose them, and since that moment, I’ve never done a show like that again,” Oprah said, reflecting on the taping years later.
It was a defining moment in “Oprah Show” history. Then, in the series’ final season, that episode ended up serving as a measure for how far people can come, as two of the former white supremacists sat down with Oprah once again in 2011.
“First and foremost, I’d like to express ― absolutely from the bottom of my heart ― I apologize for how we were on your show,” Mazzella said. “We were rude, we were arrogant, we were disruptive and hateful.”
For Mike, seeing himself on the 1988 tape is emotionally overwhelming. “That kid was lost,” he said with tears in his eyes.
After that defining “Oprah Show” episode, both men served time for various crimes. Barrett went to prison for defacing a synagogue and Mazzella went to jail for assault. Both men also experienced life-changing epiphanies soon after the show aired.
In Mazzella’s case, he realized he needed to change his life after a group that he was recruiting to join the White Aryan Resistance ended up murdering an Ethiopian student.
“That woke me up,” he said. “I realized that there’s consequences to ideas.”
Barrett’s epiphany came while he was in prison.
“The crew they put me on was entirely black,” he said. “These guys accepted me for who I was ― they already knew about my past because it was tattooed all over my back and my neck. I had swastikas all over me. But they treated me like a human being. It just taught me that everybody’s a human being, and we can’t just hate people.”
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