This former KKK recruiter atones by steering young people away from extremism.

Scott Shepard was in the Ku Klux Klan for 19 years and admits to encouraging violent attacks and acts of terror against people of color and the government.

Today, he says he's reformed.

Shepard is the focus of a short documentary by Independent Lens that profiles his journey toward an eventual harsh rebuke of the KKK and how his family — particularly the black woman who helped raise him — responded to his violent turn and eventual change of heart.


The film may even help prevent another tragedy, revealing the specific — and totally ordinary — reasons Shepard was radicalized, how he radicalized others, and what he'd say now to teens and other people feeling desperate to belong.

Like a lot of KKK members, Shepard says he joined because he felt isolated. He just didn't fit in anywhere.

Growing up in Indianola, he says he was  an "angry child" who was drawn to other violent or extremist groups like the Italian mafia and the Irish Republican Army.

"I could've very well gotten involved with ISIS," he said in the film. "I was just looking for a place to fit in, to fill a void within myself."

When Shepard went to a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, it changed his life.

There, he met with KKK members and leaders, and he finally felt he fit in somewhere. He officially joined at 16 or 17 years old in the mid-1970s.

All GIFs via PBS/Independent Lens.

Shepard quickly ascended the ranks of the KKK as a spokesman for the group and a successful recruiter.

He admits the playbook for recruiting new members never changed: It's as easy as offering angry, confused young people a place to belong. For many, that's all it took.

It's hard not to imagine what those kids' lives would have been like if a teacher, coach, faith leader, or another trusted adult got to them first.

Shepard's path toward redemption began when he was in rehab for alcoholism.

"I was forced to sit down with these people, and we shared life stories and intimate conversations," he said.

Building meaningful relationships with people from different backgrounds helped Shepard get on the path to atonement. After some soul searching, he walked away from the KKK in 1992.

Now, Shepard is doing his part to change himself and keep other teens from following a dangerous path.

He shares his story widely, speaking out against racism on TV and at numerous public appearances. His Twitter handle is even @reformedracist.

The advice Shepard gives to young people considering joining an extremist group is simple but powerful.

Though he wishes he'd gotten it many years ago, it's never too late to share with someone else at risk of being radicalized by extremists.

"First off, I'd tell you to find someone you trusted. And if they have problems with their parents, don't go to your parents. Go to someone you trust and talk to them about your feelings. They've gotta open up early. They can't take these feelings and hold 'em in ... for the rest of their life."

Shepard embraces Rebecca Hawkins, the black woman who helped raise him.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.