“Struggle is not limited. Struggle is constant”: Gary Tyler shares his story

Grace Monk, Editor

On September 22, Viterbo University welcomed speaker Gary Tyler, a man wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder and who spent 41 years in prison. He came to Viterbo to share his story with students. 

On October 7, 1974, Gary Tyler’s entire life changed. “It was a Monday, and I went to school not knowing that would be the last day I would be attending that school,” shared Tyler. That morning he was called to the principal’s office and suspended for speaking out against the mistreatment of students at the school. Tyler was asked to leave the school grounds and decided to take a school bus instead of walking. “Black Students were being rushed from the main gym to the bus, so [I] got on.” he said. Tyler’s school was in a white neighborhood. Students and parents were unhappy with “the infusion of over 300 blacks and the buses came under attack,” shared Tyler.  

As the students exited the buses, police officers patted them down. After Tyler was searched, he turned around to find his cousin being pulled aside by the officer. “He was arresting him for having a .22 bullet around his neck,” Tyler said, “and that’s when I told him that it wasn’t anything illegal about that.” Tyler was arrested for disturbing the peace and brought to the police station where he was abused by officers. The officers accused Tyler of murdering a 14-year-old white boy. “I was tried and convicted of first-degree murder,” Tyler said. “I automatically received the death penalty and was given the [execution] date of May 1, 1976.” 

Tyler was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary and spent the next 41 years appealing his case. He tried to make the best of his time in prison. “I made the decision that despite the overall situation, I had to make the best of it. I did everything humanly possible to better myself,” said Tyler. He believed that “people should never despair because they have the power to make change.” He continued to fight for his freedom and was released on April 29, 2016.  

“It was surreal,” Tyler said. “I knew that was the beginning of my life and that all the things I desired and wished for were coming to fruition.” Tyler found adjusting to life after prison difficult at times but felt that doing things on his own was “an exhilarating feeling.” He has enjoyed his freedom and has yet to have an unpleasant experience. “Just because something bad happened to me doesn’t necessarily mean the system and the people themselves are bad,” Tyler said. “I was released with open arms and accepted back into society in my rightful place.”  

Tyler felt his story needed to be told to help others. “I speak for those who are not able to speak for themselves,” shared Tyler. He also shares his story to educate others and promote social change. “I feel when people are enlightened and educated, it makes it easier for people to make changes,” Tyler said. He was not always positive about his situation. “I always tell people when this happened to me, I had my pity stage. I hurt, I grieved, and I started hating white people. Not the ones I felt were responsible but whites as a whole.” 

Tyler realized that he was not alone in his struggle. “The struggle we feel is inseparable. When the country becomes ill it doesn’t affect only those of color, it affects everyone. Even whites in this country,” Tyler said. He tells his story with an open mind and the hope that it will inspire change. “Struggle is not limited. Struggle is constant,” shared Tyler. He encourages others to work together despite their differences. 

Tyler’s final message for the students at Viterbo is “to get involved, be independent, and maintain your integrity.”