The following comes from HRC’s Associate Director of Diversity, Donna Payne:
The struggle for LGBT equality is a lengthy journey, and we still have a long way to go. There comes a time during this journey when one person’s bravery stands out among all of us. One such person is Mrs. Stella Byrd. Mrs. Byrd died at 85 yrs old on October 7, 2010, after a long period of illness.
Stella Byrd is the mother of James Byrd Jr. In 1998, James was dragged behind a pickup truck by his ankles and then dumped in a cemetery in Jasper, Texas by three men in a vicious act of hatred. The details of his heinous killing brought about national attention and activated many civil rights organizations to begin addressing race and hate crimes in Texas.
Mrs. Byrd faced an overwhelming amount of attention on her son’s death, but she handled it with courage and love. She led the Byrd family immediately into working with lawmakers to pass hate crimes legislation in Texas. Her heart was in making sure that no one had to go through what her family was facing. Within four months, another heinous crime was committed; this time against a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming named Matthew Shepard. Again there was a national outcry for something to be done about hate crimes. It was at this time that we saw our hero stand up. Mrs. Stella Byrd talked to several civil rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign. Her family agreed to attend the HRC dinner in solidarity with the LGBT community. She was 73 years old at the time. Her courage in demanding that the Federal Hate Crimes legislation be broadened to include the LGBT community was an act of bravery. Many attempts were made to separate the Black community from supporting LGBT rights, but Mrs. Byrd was steadfast in her support.
In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. Mrs. Stella Byrd asked her daughters to represent the family while she watched it on television; she was ill then and couldn’t travel. I called her after the signing to ask her if she was pleased to see it signed into law; she said, “This is a good day and will help prevent other families from going through what we experienced. Even though we’re different colors and different sexual orientations or gender identities, God made us all and he loves us all.”
Of course, we have plenty of more work to do to reach LGBT equality. The work continues, but we won’t forget Stella Byrd, who understood that justice wasn’t about just her family; it is about all of us.