I promised Judy Shepard when I saw her in the Oval Office that this day would come,” President Barack Obama said just before signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law on October 28. With the President’s signature, accidental activists Dennis and Judy Shepard witnessed the devastating loss of their son transform into triumph for countless millions. The legislation honors the memory of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student brutally murdered in an act of hate violence in 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, the same year.
The passage of this landmark legislation took the combined efforts and influence of more than 300 civil-rights and social-justice organizations, plus more than a million e-mails, faxes, and phone calls from committed individuals. It was a testament to perseverance on the part of activists nationwide, sending an unmistakable message to Capitol Hill that hate- crimes legislation was long overdue.
Prior to the enactment of this law, federal hate-crime statutes offered limited protection, covering only certain federally protected activities such as voting. The classes of people were restricted to race, religion, and national origin. The newly enacted legislation expands protection to crimes motivated by bias against a person’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. It also permits the government to provide grants and assistance to state and local authorities investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. By giving the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence, the act ensures that local law enforcement will have the resources it needs to address hate crimes.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 86,582 hate crimes have been reported since the introduction in Congress of the first hate-crimes bill on November 13, 1997, with 13,528 of them based on sexual orientation. Many bias-motivated crimes go unreported, misleading people into thinking the problem is not as severe as it is, further underscoring the depth of the situation and need for this legislation.
HRC President Joe Solmonese praised Obama for signing the Act into law, calling it a “historic milestone in the inevitable march toward equality.”
Emphasizing the message of both perseverance in civil-rights progress and grassroots involvement, Judy Shepard, Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, stated, “We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the President for taking this step forward on behalf of hate-crime victims and their families. But each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans.”
OutFront Minnesota Anti-Violence Director Rebecca Waggoner-Kloek noted that in 2008, a 185 percent increase in violent bias-related crimes took place. In the reported crimes, almost 40 percent of the victims required medical attention. While pointing out that over the past three years, attacks have been progressively more brutal, she called the passage of the federal hate-crimes law “fantastic!—it is the first time we’ve seen such commitment at a high level to safety for everyone.”
In the end, the importance of this legislation is about quality of life, of community. When the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law, it improved all our communities, not just some of them. It exposed the law’s opponents, and restored rationality to the spotlight. Ultimately, it revived the American dream for a great many people who had been intimidated for far too long by bullies motivated by hate and fear.
But now, as the tide is turning, the President’s vision is that, as put it, “no one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love.”