October 28 marks the anniversary of arguably one of the most important changes to federal hate crime statues in the history of the United States Department of Justice. On this day, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009), often shortened to The Shepard/Byrd Act, was signed into law and the significance of its passing, including the victims for which it is named, continue to have a substantial impact on society.
In 1998, two horrific murders took place that changed the way hate crime is treated in the American criminal justice system. On June 7, 1998, James Byrd, Jr., a 49-year-old African American man who was known for his charismatic, helpful demeanor and his musical talent, accepted a ride home from three white men (two of which were devout white supremacists) in the small East Texas town of Jasper. Byrd got in the bed of their pick-up truck, but instead of taking him home, they drove him to a desolate area east of town, beat him severely, chained him to the back of the truck by his ankles and dragged him to his death. All too quickly Byrd’s life was taken away because of the color of his skin.
In the early hours of October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay American college student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who was a great conversationalist and held a deep empathic concern for others, was abducted and tied to a split-rail fence, beaten severely, and left to die, succumbing to his wounds a few days later. Both vicious attacks spawned nationwide debates about hate crimes, racism, and homophobia which ultimately led to the passage of The Shepard/Byrd Act.
The Shepard/Byrd Act is a U.S. federal statute that updated the FBI’s definitions of sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity and officially expanded the federal hate crime laws to include violence directed at transgender and gender nonconforming people. It gives the Department of Justice the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes committed because of the race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person. But The Shepard/Byrd Act may never have materialized without the massive amount of activism resultant from the murders of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard. Targeted for who they were, Byrd’s and Shepard’s senseless deaths sparked nationwide protests, candlelight vigils, and calls for federal legislation to protect victims of bias-motivated violence. Behind it all stood Byrd’s and Shepard’s families. In 1999, Byrd’s family established the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing and Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, started the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The two families joined together to lobby for federal protection for victims of hate crime. It took more than 11 years but on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law with Shepard’s mom, Judy Shepard, and two of Byrd’s sisters, Louvon Harris and Betty Boatner, by his side.
Since 2009, the FBI has tracked thousands of hate crimes under the parameters outlined by The Shepard/Byrd Act. In 2013 alone there were 5,928 hate crime incidents involving 6,933 offenses which impacted a total of 7,242 victims. The top three bias categories were race (49% of the total single-bias incident hate crimes in 2013, 66% of which were motivated by anti-black or African-American bias), sexual orientation (21% of the total hate crimes in 2013, 61% of which were motivated by anti-gay male bias), and religion (17% of the total hate crimes in 2013, 59% of which were motivated by anti-Jewish bias). Bias-motivated crimes based on ethnicity, disability, gender identity or gender were less commonly reported.
But The Shepard/Byrd Act is about more than tracking and prosecuting hate crime offenders for their crimes; it represents a global fight against oppression and hate. Beyond that, it reminds us of who hate crime victims are and puts a face on the senseless nature of hate crimes in general. Byrd was a friendly father and grandfather who took the time to cut his neighbor’s grass and enjoyed singing hymns and playing piano. A religious man, his good sense of humor made him easy to talk to and he never met a stranger. Half-way across the country, Shepard’s sensitive, soft-spoken nature led him to become a great conversationalist who was polite, thoughtful, and extremely empathetic. He frequently lent a hand to the needy, buying lunch for those who were less fortunate and volunteering his time with activism groups. While these two men were thousands of miles apart living completely separate lives, their common interest in helping people is unmistakable. Both experienced oppression for who they were and their lives will forever be connected as a result of their gruesome and violent bias-related murders and the outpouring of support and activism following their deaths.
Today, Byrd and Shepard’s families continue to fight oppression. Judy Shepard travels the country speaking about the importance of replacing hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance through empowering individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity. Byrd’s family conducts diversity workshops, awards scholarships to minorities, and runs an oral history project with more than 2,600 personal stories about racism. Overall, Shepard’s and Byrd’s lives and untimely deaths continue to serve as a true inspiration for activism against hate.