Anniversary of a tragedy

Posted on 06 Jun 2008 at 11:50am

Sunday, June 7 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the murder of James Byrd Jr.

You remember that name, don’t you? He was the black man in Jasper, Texas who was chained to the bumper of a pickup truck and dragged behind it until he was literally torn to pieces. All because the three white boys who offered him a ride didn’t like black people.

It is an anniversary that has a special resonance for me: His murder put Jasper — my hometown and the place where many in my family still live — on the map and made the name of it synonymous with hatred and bigotry. (I believe that Jasper’s reputation is unfounded. Those three murderers don’t represent the people of Jasper as a whole.)

As we look ahead five months to October when we will mark the 10-year anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard, we shouldn’t overlook the significance of this other anniversary of hate and tragedy.

It was James Byrd Jr.’s murder that finally convinced the Texas Legislature to get off its bigoted ass and enact a hate crimes law in this state (I don’t mean to paint all Texas lawmakers with the same brush; there were and are some good people in the Lege. But they had to fight long and hard to get their colleagues to pass the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act.)

It was Mr. Byrd’s family and their supporters who stood firm and insisted that protections for LGBT people be included in the hate crimes law. We, as a community, owe them a debt of gratitude.

His family also were the ones who reacted with grace, dignity and courage as his murder made international headlines and extremists on both sides of the race issue flocked to Jasper and tried to use the tragedy to their personal and political advantage. We should all look to them as role models of how to handle such grief and outrage.

Even though James Byrd Jr. was not a gay man, he holds a place in the history of our community — because he died a victim of hate, murdered by people who hate us for our orientation as much as they hated him for the color of his skin. So take a minute on Sunday to remember James Byrd Jr. and say a little prayer to whatever higher power you believe in that someday soon we might live in a world where there will be no more lives lost to the hate that claimed James Byrd Jr. And Matthew Shepard. And Lawrence King. And all the others like them.

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