Photograph of an entry in a handwritten diary. The dateline reads, "Springfield, May21st, '65."

The Power of Response: Letters and Words that Moved a Nation

3 min read

Currently on the second floor of the Center for Education and Leadership is the Not Alone: The Power of Response exhibition, which is a collection of letters sent to Judy and Dennis Shepard following the brutal murder of their son, Matthew, in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.

A Ford’s exhibition team and museum design firm Split Rock Studios have created this moving exhibit with the support of Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard. The exhibition pays homage to Matthew’s legacy and demonstrates how beauty and kindness exist even in the midst of a terrible tragedy.

Earlier this year, Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault was speaking with Judy Shepard about overall plans for the Legacy Project, and she mentioned how the family had thousands of letters in storage that they had received from people across the globe after Matthew died. Paul and the Ford’s curatorial team had been looking for an exhibition that would fit in with the programming for the Legacy Project this fall, and these letters sounded like they had great potential.

In April, a Ford’s Theatre exhibition team led by Curator of Exhibits Tracey Avant traveled to the Shepards’ residence in Casper, Wyoming. Over a five-day period, Avant and her team sifted through close to 10,000 cards and letters. People from all walks of life had written to the Shepards. There were letters from individuals, student groups, national leaders, people like President Clinton and Coretta Scott King, religious groups and more. “We started with ten bins of letters, but on the last day we discovered four more,” Avant explained.

Back in Washington, designs and layout of the exhibit could begin. Based on the content of the letters, the team decided to separate the correspondence by overall themes: embracing empathy, take responsibility and speak up/speak out. Each theme has numerous types of letters. There are hand-written letters, letters from school-age children, drawings and personalized cards, letters from senators and many more. A letter from the empathy section reads, “…That could have been me! But really that was me. He was me. He was all of us.”

In one of President Clinton’s letters, he acknowledges Mrs. Shepard’s initial meeting concerning the hate crimes bill and his disappointment in Congress not passing legislation addressing hate crimes provisions. He wrote, “…I will continue to fight for this critical protection.”

Opposite the display of letters in the exhibit space is a hauntingly beautiful composite photograph taken by artist Jeff Sheng of the fence outside Laramie—a view taken from Matthew’s perspective of where the attackers had tied him. Upon a first glance of this photo, one feels a sense of beautiful emptiness. After observing the piece and taking in the power of the letters that are attached to the exhibit, the miles and miles of open Wyoming wilderness are no longer beautiful; once it sinks in that this stunning place was the home to a heinous crime, I felt an eagerness to do something and make change in the world.

As visitors read each letter, it’s hard not to think of how 15 years have passed since Matthew’s death, and what social progress has been made in that time. For me, I think the exhibit is an overall work of genius that is right at home at the Ford’s Theatre campus—the place where Lincoln’s legacy lives.

Not Alone: The Power of Response is on exhibit until November 3, 2013 at Ford’s Center of Education and Leadership.

The Laramie Project, directed by Matthew Gardiner, begins September 27, 2013, and will run until October 27, 2013.

Marjon Wolfe graduated with a BFA in Theatre Arts Administration from Howard University. She is former Marketing and Communications Intern and an assistant house manager at Ford’s Theatre.

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Marjon Wolfe is former Marketing and Communications Intern and an assistant house manager at Ford’s Theatre.

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