Bodies of Hatred and Women of Strength
By Patrick Henry
The image of Matthew Shepard’s mutilated body haunted me for seven years before I did something about it. On Oct. 6, 1998, the openly gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was pistol-whipped until his brain stem had been irreparably damaged and left hanging on a rail fence outside of Laramie. He was found 18 hours later and died on Oct. 12 in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
In 2005, I founded the Matthew Shepard Lecture Series at Whitman College to bring speakers to campus to address hate crimes and issues of equal rights for all persons regardless of sexual orientation.
The first speaker invited to campus was Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, who was living in Saudi Arabia at the time of the murder. She and her husband, Dennis, arrived in Fort Collins 48 hours after they received the terrible phone call. On March 2, 2005, Judy gave a talk, “The Legacy of Matthew Shepard,” to a packed auditorium in Cordiner Hall. “Arriving at the hospital,” she said, “I saw a young man covered in blood and bandages. I wasn’t sure this was even Matt.” She spoke about love, respect, and acceptance of diversity. “This is a hate thing,” she insisted. “What I do isn’t about Matt anymore. We can’t help him anymore.”
A woman of passion, commitment, and courage in the face of an unspeakable family tragedy, Judy and her husband created the Matthew Shepard Foundation that, 25 years later, still works aggressively to “to amplify the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people.”
Another horrific image was also seared into my soul in 1998. Four months before Matthew was brutally murdered, James Byrd, Jr. met an equally dreadful fate. He was murdered by two White Supremacists and another man on June 7, 1998, in Jasper, Texas. He was chained by his ankles and dragged for three miles behind a pickup truck on an asphalt road. He probably remained conscious for half that distance, until his body hit a culvert and his right arm and head were severed. His murderers deposited his torso in front of a Black church. He was 49 years old.
In late 2006, I called the Byrd family and spoke with James’ sister, Louvon Harris. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jan. 15, 2007, Louvon gave the fourth Matthew Shepard Lecture, “Responding to Hatred: The Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing.”
In her talk, Louvon spoke about the family’s work to create racial harmony and healing. Members of the Byrd family, that was largely responsible for maintaining peace in Jasper after the killing, campaigned unsuccessfully to spare the lives of the men who killed James.
Twenty years after the murder, a bench was dedicated to James Byrd Jr. at the courthouse in Jasper. At the ceremony, his daughter, Renee Byrd Mullins, said that she wanted to remind the audience that “hate is a learned response.” Louvon was there to express the family’s wish that James’s death “will bring some good.” The inscription on the bench reads: “Be the change that you want to see in the world”
In large part thanks to Judy Shepard and Louvon Harris, both of whom met with President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in Oct 2009. This Act expands the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
In early November 2022, 15 years after saying goodbye to Louvon Harris at the Tri-Cities airport, and only a few minutes into Chinonye Chukwu’s new film, “Till,” I was suddenly overwhelmed with sadness and images of Judy Shepard and Louvon Harris, as I watched another devastated, powerful and determined woman refuse to be silent in the face of a brutal death of a family member.
As a 15-year-old myself, I had learned that on Aug. 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till had been abducted, tortured and lynched, and had his body sunk into the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi. His body was found three days later. But I knew very few details about what happened afterward.
The authorities in Mississippi wanted to bury Emmett immediately in Mississippi. But Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till (later Mamie Till-Bradley), called Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, who halted the burial in Mississippi and had the body shipped to Chicago, as the family wanted.
When Mamie Till saw the mutilated, unrecognizable, bloated body of her son, she knew why the authorities in Mississippi wanted to bury him right away. She also knew why she wanted a public funeral and an open casket: “I want the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said. Emmett’s funeral was held on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago.
Mamie Till believed her mission was to tell Emmett’s story. Roughly 100,000 people viewed Emmett’s body over four days, and she had the picture of him in his casket published in Jet Magazine. Two days after the Sept. 23, 1955, trial in which his killers were acquitted, Mamie spoke before 10,000 people in Harlem. She then went on a month-long trip with the NAACP and spoke in 33 cities in 19 states.
In 1956, Mamie Till-Bradley went to Chicago Teachers College. After her graduation in 1960, she taught until her retirement in 1983.
Mamie added fury to the Civil Rights Movement. Emmett’s funeral was a turning point in the fight for racial justice. His death inspired Rosa Parks, Reb. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act—which makes lynching a federal hate crime—was signed into law on March 29, 2022, by President Joe Biden.
The courage of these three women has inspired thousands of people to reflect and make significant, humanitarian laws that protect minorities from acts of hatred and discrimination. These women teach us that one determined individual can have a significant impact on the community. They are models for us as we move forward in the struggle against homophobia and racism.
Pat Henry is the Cushing Eells Professor of Philosophy and Literature and Foreign Languages and Literatures (French), Emeritus. In 2005, Henry founded the Matthew Shepard Lecture Series at Whitman College.