By Joyce King
Every June near the anniversary of the James Byrd Jr. dragging death in Jasper, Texas, I am invited to speak, to write, to present something on how far we’ve come as a nation since that awful Sunday morning in June 1998. It’s an annual part of my life since I wrote a book about Byrd.
But the interviews this year were sadder and made me more reflective as I pondered 49 precious lives taken away and 53 others facing recovery and survivor’s remorse, while post-traumatic nightmares snatch them back to the beat of music, the sound of gunfire, the doomed silence inside a club that was supposed to be a haven.
The same year that a black man was dragged three miles behind a pickup truck in Jasper because of the color of his skin, a gay man was beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming, because of his sexual orientation. The two cases, together, garnered worldwide attention and pleas for civility, tolerance and awareness.
I told the host of one show that it was ironic that the gay man and the black man would never meet. Matthew Shepard and Byrd, human symbols of a movement to conquer hate, are forever inextricably linked by federal legislation designed to provide some degree of protection in the hope that all men really are created equal. All Americans matter.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act so members of the LBGT community would know they were included and afforded equal justice if targeted because of their sexual identity. The law also contains a mandate that police officials keep track of hate crimes and motives.
According to the latest figures available from the Justice Department, in 2014, there were 5,462 single-bias incidents that involved 6,681 hate crime victims. Of the total, almost half of the victims were targeted because offenders harbored racial bias. Nineteen percent were victimized based on their sexual orientation, while 29 percent of the attacks were fueled by prejudice related to the victim’s religion or ethnicity. The total number of incidents reported makes me wonder how many hate crimes go unspoken.
As more details about Orlando are confirmed, I’m shattered to learn the shooter’s wife may have known about his plans to massacre people. On the other hand, there were people who noted telltale signs about the shooter. They called authorities. They asked for help. It is heartbreaking to comprehend our government had this man in its sights, under investigation, for almost a year. In March 2014, federal agents concluded there simply wasn’t enough evidence to charge him or to keep him under further surveillance.
We may never know exactly what is in the mind of a hater who snaps, or who has chosen to terrorize the innocent, target a particular group, based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. But we do know they are consumed by hatred itself.
In Jasper, at the three trials for the men accused of dragging James Byrd, we learned of the many friends and acquaintances who had heard one or more of the defendants “joking” about what they wanted to do to Jewish people and blacks. Most folks shrugged it off and continued hanging out with them, drinking and partying with them. As fate later revealed, the free speech evolved into free-flowing hatred on a logging road where Byrd was attacked and then chained to the back of a truck.
Now, we have this new anniversary to place alongside Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, San Bernardino and Charleston, as we look differently at the former sanctuary of our schools and universities, movie theaters and churches. Now, we have more numbers, facts and figures on hate crimes, unimaginable crimes meant to defeat and terrorize. And, we are tired, weary of adding new names for victims: Luis, Angel, Paul, Kimberly, Christopher …
As we go forward, there are some lessons America can learn — if she is willing — from the LBGT community. For one, I have never heard a lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender person promote bigotry, hatred, revenge or any crimes against humanity, never. I have only, ever in my life, heard this community speak of acceptance, peace and love.
This year’s anniversary was tough to get through. But I was energized by survivors like Patience Carter and her poetic retelling in news reports of the sheer determination it took to survive the Orlando shooting, unafraid in the face of such brutal hatred.