02/21/2006

Hate Crime Victims Remembered at Vigil

About 100 men, women and children gathered on the Capitol steps Sunday to mark the seventh anniversary of the death of Billy Jack Gaither and to rally for gay rights.

Gaither was murdered February 19, 1999, near Sylacauga, Alabama, because he was gay. His is one of five deaths highlighted in the Civil Rights Memorial Center's "Hate's Continuing Toll" exhibit.

The annual "Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence" remembers Gaither and all who have been victims of violence and intolerance due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation. It calls on citizens to stand together against hate and to build community in Alabama.

A series of speakers cited a recently failed bill in the state House of Representatives that would have added sexual orientation to the Alabama's hate crime law. They urged the crowd to continue to push for its passage.

"We must send a message to the people of this state that we will be relentless in our pursuit of full rights," said the Rev. Felicia Fontaine of SoulForce Alabama, an interfaith movement committed to ending spiritual violence perpetuated by religious policies and teachings against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people.

"There is a moral obligation to come out, not just as gays and lesbians, but as their family and friends," she said. "It'll take a lot of courage from a lot of people willing to put it on the line."

The Rev. Bennie Liggins, pastor of Unity Worship Center, said he spent 26 years in the Air Force serving his country. "And I can't believe I stand here in the cold today and see people denied their rights," he said.

He quoted the legendary heroine of the Civil Rights Movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, as inspiration for his commitment to equal rights. "Just like her, I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired!" Liggins said.

The vigil was sponsored by Equality Alabama, the Montgomery chapters of the National Organization for Women and Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and a variety of church groups.

Reading the program's "Litany of Remembrance" were two Southern Poverty Law Center staffers, Civil Rights Memorial Center education director Lecia Brooks and Teaching Tolerance grants administrator Rhonda Thomason.