BY CINDY JAQUITH
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - To a church of hundreds of people with standing room only and many more outside, Marge Ragona, pastor of the Covenant Metropolitan Community Church here, welcomed the crowd, "This [turnout] is far beyond our wildest dreams." The memorial was also a protest. Seventeen ministers and community leaders from the region spoke against the slaying of Billy Jack Gaither, who was gay.
Across the street from the church, five members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, picketed the memorial meeting with antigay signs. They had picketed the funeral of Matthew Shephard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten to death last October. The rightists were vastly outnumbered.
Gaither, 39, lived in Sylacauga, a rural town about 50 miles southeast of Birmingham. He had worked for years loading and unloading trucks at Russell Corp., a national athletic apparel manufacturer with several plants in eastern Alabama. On February 19 Gaither was kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Police have arrested two men, Steven Mullins, 25, and Charles Butler, 21, for the crime. On March 5, the local and national media reported that the two men had confessed to killing Gaither because he was gay.
According to Al Bradley, sheriff's deputy in Coosa County, Alabama, Mullins and Butler told police they planned the killing in advance. They tricked Gaither into going for a ride with them, drove to a reservoir, beat him with an ax handle, and later set his body on top of a pile of burning tires.
The two men claim Gaither had made an unwanted pass at one of them. Local residents interviewed by the media expressed strong doubt that this was the case. Marian Hammond, who knew both Gaither and Mullins, noted that Mullins frequently wore "provocative T-shirts, with `White Power' on them and stuff like that." A preliminary hearing for the two is set for March 17.
The Socialist Workers candidate for mayor of Birmingham, Ardella Blandford, attended the March 9 service for Gaither and released a statement to the press calling for "more actions in the streets" to push back right-wing violence. (See campaign statement on page 14).
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