by Hayden Wiggs, Journalism Graduate Student
On July 8, 2022, Jay Lee, a 20-year-old recent graduate of the University of Mississippi, went missing from his Campus Walk apartment.
“I was in shock,” said Braylyn Johnson, remembering the moment she found out that her friend and former roommate Jay Lee had disappeared. “I saw the flyer and just thought I’d be able to call him that evening and he’d answer and the confusion would be over.”
On July 22, HottyToddy.com reported that 22-year-old Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr. of Grenada, Mississippi had been arrested in conjunction with the case.
“He had been charged with murder,” said Johnson, “and instantly, there was chaos.”
Local news outlets released frequent updates regarding the case both in print and on their social media accounts, the latter of which quickly became a cesspool of hate and bigotry, according to Johnson. Johnson, who is active on social media, said she saw an onslaught of racist, homophobic, and transphobic comments left in the wake of Herrington’s arrest, and remembers the feeling it spurred in her: the feeling to take action.
“The two weeks while Jay was missing, there wasn’t a lot of discourse,” she said. “It was just people wanting a mother to find her son, or wanting a family to be reunited with their college student. But at that point, when Herrington was arrested, everything switched.”
Jose Reyes, another close friend of Jay Lee’s, remembers that switch, and the onslaught of misinformation that followed, all too well.
“When everything first started going down, rumors were being made, things were being taken out of context — it was just really getting out of control,” said Reyes. “The main thing I was very, very adamant about was pinpointing that Jay Lee was a cisgender man who went by he/him pronouns. There was so much confusion about who Jay Lee was, and I remember him being so strong about who he was and expressing that to me. It was important that I continued protecting him and made sure the world knew who Jay Lee really was.”
“[The day the misinformation started] was the day the injustice started,” said Johnson, “because I knew from past cases in Mississippi’s history, that public opinion can and will affect the way that justice is served.”
The search for justice
In the United States, the majority of hate crimes are motivated by biases against race and sexual orientation. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reported that, in 2022, at least 38 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in the United States. (HRC uses the term “at least” due to the number of incidents that go unreported, or misreported.) Two of these deaths occurred in Mississippi: Shawmaynè Giselle Marie, a 27-year-old black transgender woman, was killed in Gulfport on June 21. Kenyatta “Kesha” Williams, a 24-year-old black transgender woman was found dead in Jackson on March 26, 2022. Jay Lee was the third queer person to be slain in Mississippi in 2022.
“And when you see these cases of violence against black and queer people, especially in the South, you do see an increase in transphobic and homophobic things being said,” said Johnson. “We knew we had to step in and defend him in the community. We needed to be the platform to be able to have a voice for Jay Lee. We had to get him in the media more.”
The Justice for Jay Lee Movement was born from what Johnson described as “pure desperation,” and a refusal to “let corruption and hate be spewed over [her] friend’s legacy.”
“That Friday, when Herrington was arrested, I remember calling Jose and saying, ‘Let’s do this,’” said Johnson. “I called every organizer and every mentor I could think of for advice and then, we just did it. We created the Justice for Jay Lee Instagram page and started putting out information.”
“I remember being like, of course, we have to spread this story somehow,” says Reyes. “Everyone is on social media, so it was easy to make those connections.”
The campaign for Jay Lee
The Instagram account, @justiceforjaylee, shared its first post on July 24, 2022. It read: WHO WAS JIMMIE JAY LEE? The post told Jay Lee’s story from the perspective of his friends, offering insight into his life, his activism, and who he was as a person. It included videos of Jay Lee’s performances at Code Pink, a monthly LGBTQ+ dance event in Oxford, as well as pictures of him with his family. The caption read: “The entire world is watching Oxford, Mississippi to make sure that Jay Lee’s family gets the justice that they deserve.” The post received more than 100 likes.
Since that initial post, the Justice for Jay Lee Instagram account has accrued nearly 3,000 followers, with the hashtags #whereisjaylee, #jaylee, and #justiceforjaylee having been used on more than 100 posts. They have also recently launched a TikTok account that has earned more than 390,000 views and 34,600 likes with nearly 1,000 followers.
“We never anticipated growing this much,” said Reyes. “We weren’t expecting to make more than three posts. We were really anticipating that Jay Lee was going to be found and that we wouldn’t have to continue using that account. But we have, and it’s helped a lot. It definitely has spread Jay Lee’s legacy.”
The criminal investigation into Jay Lee’s case has seen several updates since the account’s creation. On March 29, Timothy Herrington was indicted by a Lafayette County grand jury on a capital murder charge. He is still out under his previous bond, and a trial will be set for a later date.
Meanwhile, Jay Lee’s body has yet to be found, thus the push to bring awareness to Jay Lee’s story goes on. Johnson, Reyes, and others have sponsored rallies, Code Pink events, and even special drinks at Proud Larry’s, with proceeds going to support Jay Lee’s family. How do they decide what events to hold? They ask themselves one question: what would Jay Lee do?
“He would be at Code Pink,” said Johnson. “So, we’ve set up a memorial at every Code Pink since Jay Lee went missing. The drink at Proud Larry’s — when he went missing, it was a couple of weeks before his 21st birthday. I’m an event planner so, I thought, what can I do to celebrate him? Within a week, we put together a full-scale event in honor of Jay Lee’s birthday to raise money for his family.”
Johnson credits the Justice for Jay Lee movement, Code Pink, Jay’s friends and family, and members of LAMBDA (an LGBTQIA+ process support group for students in the UM Department of Psychology), as helping to make all of this possible.
“Our community makes our in-person appearances just so much better,” she said. “Their support is incredible.”
Rae DelBianco, a bestselling author, UM writing fellow, and member of the movement, expressed her admiration for the young activists. “Braylyn and Jose are downright the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” she said. “The courage with which they are facing down the powers that be in order to get justice for a loved one is absolutely incredible.”
When asked about the movement’s successes and what comes next, Johnson said she is optimistic that Justice for Jay Lee will incite powerful change, change that she knows would make her friend proud.
“Jay Lee was such a well-rounded, passionate person,” she said. “Because of the platform that we’re building, we’ve developed enough community resources to be able to pick up where Jay Lee left off [with his activism]. There’s so much that can be said and done for Jay Lee. Anti-LGBT and anti-black [legislation] are plaguing the entire nation right now. It’s important that we use our platform not only to get justice for Jay Lee but to speak out against these forms of hate, just like Jay Lee would have. There’s so much work and so many ideas that he had that he didn’t get to finish before his disappearance. Those ideas and his work deserve to continue on.”