A Brief History of U.S. Hate Crimes Legislation

“If even one family can avoid getting that phone call, in the middle of the night, because of this legislation, it would be well worth it.”

– Judy Shepard

The first U.S. law enacted to combat hate crimes – The Civil Rights Act of 1871 – tried to curtail Ku Klux Klan violence during the Post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. It would be another one hundred twenty years before the first federal statute to include sexual minorities—The Hate Crimes Statistics Act—was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on April 23, 1993. Efforts to expand on that landmark legislation over the next quarter-century were met with fierce opposition by religious groups who rejected any legal protections covering “sexual orientation.” This all changed in 1998 after two shocking murders. First, James Byrd, Jr., a Black man, was chained to the bumper of a pick-up truck and dragged to his death on June 7, 1998. Then, on October 7, 1998, a young gay college student named Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence, severely beaten about the head and neck, and left to die by two local men he met in a bar in Laramie, Wyoming. He succumbed to his injuries on October 12, 1998. Coming only months after Byrd’s horrific race-motivated killing, Shepard’s murder – in a state without any hate crimes laws – ignited outrage against anti-LGBTQ violence, as well. Originally introduced in November 1997, The Hate Crimes Prevention Act sought to compensate for the lack of hate crimes laws in many states by enacting a federal hate crimes statute that included sexual orientation, gender and disability while also strengthening penalties for hate crimes based on race, religion and national origin. But religious opposition continued. Even after it was reintroduced as The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act in May 2005—heralded by scores of mental health and law enforcement professionals—President George W. Bush’s opposition to all LGBTQ-affirming initiatives doomed its passage in 2007. It was not until President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law on October 28, 2009, that the 13-year crusade—spearheaded by Matthew's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard—found closure. Though his young life was taken before he could reach his full potential, Matthew Shepard will forever be remembered as a catalyst for truly historic changes in our nation's laws. With more than 1 in 4 transgender women of color likely to be the victim of a violent assault, these laws are more important than ever.

Plaque Sponsor

Paul DeSousa and Patrick F. Torres, Paul Highfield and Ronald Puskarits, Michael J. Wilson and Brian Scott Snow, Kit and Jo Welch, Laura Angelucci and Jennifer Baker, Shannon Kuehn, Christina Eldridge, Elizabeth A. Liechty and Shannon Cunningham


Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Information Age (1970-present)


Original Description Author
Description Edited By
Description Vetted, Edited, and Certified By
Image Rights Usage Granted By
Image Source for Bronze Casting
Resources Coordination