Remembering James Byrd Jr.: Hate Crime Murder 15 Years Ago Today
Jasper, Texas – James Byrd Jr., father of three children, never intended to become a key player in the struggle to protect LGBTQ people from hate crime violence. But when he fell into the hands of three haters by accepting a ride from them on June 7, 1998, he became one of the most famous hate crimes murder victims of all time.
Byrd, 49, was looking for a ride home to be with his family. Instead, his three abductors, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King, aged 23 to 31 years of age, drove him out to a lonely road outside of the small town of Jasper, Texas, beat him senseless, urinated on him, and tied his ankles to the hitch of their pick up truck–apparently for no reason other than race hatred. It was a lynching-by dragging. Byrd’s killers dragged him three miles along an asphalt road until he died. Speeding along the road, his body struck a concrete culvert, severing his right arm, shoulder, and head. Investigators located 81 sites along the route where remains of Byrd’s body were scattered. Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray, said that the murder of James Byrd Jr. was the worst he had seen in over 20 years as a prosecutor. Berry, Brewer, and King dumped Byrd’s body beside the cemetery of an African American Church, and went on to celebrate their deed at a barbecue–feeling that no one in Jasper County or the State of Texas would miss a lone African American.
They were desperately wrong. Brewer and King, well-know white supremacists, were early suspects, causing DA Gray to investigate the murder as a hate crime. The FBI was called in to assist in the investigation within 24 hours of Byrd’s remains being found. Echoes of lynchings throughout the South amplified the outrage surrounding Byrd’s hate crime murder. Brewer, King, and Berry were arrested, and eventually convicted of murder as a hate crime. Brewer and King were sentenced to death, and on September 21, 2011, Brewer was put to death by lethal injection. King awaits execution on death row. Berry was sentenced to life in prison. The Byrd Family opposed the death penalty for the men who killed their beloved James, believing that more deaths could never bring peace or closure to his murder. Only justice for everyone could.
In May 2001, Texas enacted the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law. Because of advocacy within the Byrd Family, James Byrd Jr.’s name lent credibility to make the statute a gay-inclusive hate crimes protection law, and linked it to the Laramie, Wyoming anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard. Then, after decades of advocacy, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, extending federal protections to LGBT people in America for the first time in history. Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew, were joined at the White House by Betty Bryd Boatner and Louvon Harris, sisters of James, for the signing ceremony. President Obama said:
“This is the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade. Time and again, we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed. Time and again we’ve been reminded of the difficulty of building a nation in which we’re all free to live and love as we see fit. But the cause endured and the struggle continued, waged by the family of Matthew Shepard, by the family of James Byrd, by folks who held vigils and led marches, by those who rallied and organized and refused to give up, by the late Senator Ted Kennedy who fought so hard for this legislation — (applause) — and all who toiled for years to reach this day.”
Then, the President underlined the ongoing significance of the Act named for James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard:
“You understood that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear. You understand that the rights afforded every citizen under our Constitution mean nothing if we do not protect those rights — both from unjust laws and violent acts. And you understand how necessary this law continues to be.”
So, today, we remember James Byrd Jr. His death has not been in vain. The road toward full equality for all Americans is a long one. Many have died in the 15 years since the murders of Byrd and Shepard at the hands of irrational hatred. More will die, succumbing to injustices of the worst kind. But James Byrd Jr. is not forgotten, and his killers have not had the last word on his life. The struggle continues, and right is on the side of life and inclusion. This 15th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.’s death, we who believe in justice cannot allow ourselves to rest. We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes.
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