In the 1970s and 1980s, Gary Tyler became the focus of a widespread support campaign after being falsely charged with the murder of a white youth during racial tensions in Louisiana amid the desegregation of public schools. He spent almost 42 years in Angola prison, where he learned appliqué patterning and theater arts. Upon release in 2016, he became a mentor to homeless youth and an artist specializing in quilts and textiles.
While in detention, he taught himself the arts of theater and quilt-making. It initially started as a venture to support the prison hospice program financially and to offer hope to other inmates, but, Tyler lent a message to his art. He expressed the injustice he had experienced over the years in his art. Since he gained his freedom, he has been using his work to also support the homeless youth.
His first solo art exhibit, titled “We are the Willing,” reflects his commitment to defending democratic rights and opposing government injustices. Tyler’s experiences in prison, witnessing violence and finding unlikely protectors among inmates, shaped his perspective on the prison system and the need for solidarity within the working class.
Tyler’s unfortunate predicament played out on October 7, 1974, when he was on a school bus campaigning for the integration of all-white Destrehan High School. His advocacy occurred during the period politically exposed figure in Louisiana and member of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, led the White Citizens Council to stage resistance protests against desegregation efforts, according to the world socialist website.
As Tyler’s bus was setting off from the school, the crowd, predominantly white children, pelted the vehicle with rocks and bottles. In the heat of the protest, a gun was fired and killed one of the white students. Tyler was accused of firing the shot. He was framed by the police and a jury made of white members sentenced him to death. This occasioned a long journey of campaigns for Tyler’s release. Tyler was resentenced to life after two years in prison. This followed a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 that Louisiana’s death penalty was unconstitutional.
The campaign for Tyler’s freedom was led by the Workers League and the Young Socialists, which recognized the case as not only a racist attack but also a class issue. They emphasized that his freedom depended on mobilizing the independent strength of the working class against the capitalist system.
Tyler’s arrest and conviction were marked by police misconduct and a rigged trial, leading to a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. Despite legal challenges and efforts to obtain pardons, he remained imprisoned until 2016 when a series of court rulings forced his release. He was coerced into accepting a guilty plea for manslaughter in exchange for freedom, though he maintained his innocence throughout.
Today, a new generation, inspired by recent cases of police violence and injustices, is becoming aware of Tyler’s story and the ongoing fight for justice. His case serves as a reminder of the systemic issues within the criminal justice system and the need for solidarity among the working class to address social inequality and oppression.