Federal Hate Crimes Legislation

James Byrd, Jr. was a married African American with three children who sold vacuum cleaners. Needing a ride, he got in a car driven by a local man who he knew. Two other men were in the car. James asked for a ride to his home, but he was taken to a remote area out of town.

He was beaten, urinated, defecated on, and then drug for three miles. He died halfway when his right arm and head were ripped from his body. His body was then dumped in the front of an African American church. This occurred in 1998.

Two of the three men who perpetrated these atrocious acts were executed while the other remains in jail. James’ son campaigned to spare the lives of the men who murdered his father.

Matthew Shepard was a gay man studying at the University of Wyoming. He was approached by two men who offered to give him a ride home. Rather than taking him home, they took him to a rural area where they fractured his skull, beat him severely, and left him to die by tying him to a barbed wire fence. He died six days later, never regaining consciousness.

Both of the assailants were given life jail sentences and were spared the death penalty at the urging of Matthew’s parents. While Matthew’s death was clearly driven by his sexuality, this was not the basis for the sentencing. Matt’s death also occurred in 1998.

To pass hate federal crimes legislation had failed in previous efforts by Congress, but the deaths of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard spurred Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2007, but it was dropped after President George W. Bush threatened to veto it. The legislation was finally passed and signed into law by President Barack Obama. The legislation is known as the Shepard Byrd Act.

While the first hate crimes legislation was passed in 1968, it was limited in its scope. The Shepard Byrd Act removed the requirement that the crime had to be committed while the victim was in a federally protected activity (e.g. voting). It also expanded the applicability to victims based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

Beginnings often require public outrage to spur on what should have been long accepted. It’s hard to imagine that people could support those who commit hate crimes, but that had been the history of the failure to pass hate crime legislation. Beginnings often happen when the general sentiment is that enough is enough.

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            “Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater.” –  George Washington Carver (Scientist)

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