Why James Byrd’s name is on the Hate Crime law that protects sexual orientation and gender identity

Posted on 27 Oct 2009 at 10:30am

James Byrd, 49, was an African American man who was chained to the back of a pick up truck and dragged to his death in Jasper, Tex. on June 7, 1998. He died when his right arm and head were severed from his body.

He had accepted a ride from three white men. Two received the death penalty and one is serving a life sentence. Their conviction was the first time a white man had ever gotten the death penalty for the murder of a black man in Texas.

At the time, Dianne Hardy Garcia was the executive director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, now Equality Texas. She had been working on passage of a hate crime law for at least four sessions of the legislature. Because of the horror of this crime, Byrd’s name was attached to the bill. But before adding his name, Garcia went to Jasper to speak to Byrd’s mother and sister.

She explained to the family that a hate crime law would pass without controversy if sexual orientation were not included. Mrs. Byrd had only one question for Garcia.

She asked if gays and lesbians were the targets of hate crimes.

Garcia said that it depended on the year and whether local authorities even reported those crimes, but annually, the LGBT community is the second or third largest target of hate in Texas.

Mrs. Byrd didn’t have to think twice.

She said, “No family should have to go through what my family did.”

Since then she and her family have been outspoken allies of the LGBT community. In 2000, Mrs. Byrd spoke at the Millennium March in Washington, D.C., which Garcia chaired.

In speaking to then-governor George Bush and members of the Texas legislature about hate crime legislation, Mrs. Byrd insisted that gays and lesbians be included in the Texas law.

At the time of the murder, there was an almost blame-the-victim undercurrent in the reporting that questioned why a black man would have accepted a ride from three white men in rural Texas.

The reason, of course, was simple. Although Mrs. Byrd certainly faced discrimination growing up in a small Texas town, this eloquent woman never taught her children to hate and fear. And as an advocate for victim’s rights, she and her family have advocated for everyone equally.

— David Taffet

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