Ricky Byrdsong's death at hands of white supremacist still prevalent 20 years later

Two weeks from now, it will be 20 years since a white supremacist killed popular former Northwestern basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong, bringing nationwide attention to hate crimes in the Heartland.

It was drizzling and cold in Evanston Sunday morning, as 4,500 people left the starting gate of the YWCA's annual Race Against Hate. But the real starting line for this race was on a hot summer night in Skokie, 20 years ago.

“And then, I just saw, from behind me I could see a blue car turn,” said Kelley Byrdsong, daughter of Ricky.

Kelley and her brother were riding bikes alongside their dad, Ricky, when a man driving a light blue car sprayed the sidewalk with bullets.

“My dad, he just started yelling, ‘help, help, help’, and he was jumping up and down, and then at some point, he just fell to the ground,” said Kelley.

The children weren't hit, but their father was killed.

“He was a genuinely good guy. Just had a big heart, just loved people,” said Sherialyn Byrdsong, Ricky’s wife. “Loved young people, was committed to his players as a basketball coach.”

The killer was Benjamin Smith, a young white supremacist from Wilmette.  

Over that Fourth of July weekend, he shot and killed Ricky and 27-year-old Woon June Yoon, in Bloomington, Indiana. He also wounded nine other people, including six Jewish residents of Rogers Park, before taking his own life. 

Smith was a top aide to white supremacist Matthew Hale, the leader of his own downstate church, who said 20 years ago he had no sympathy for Smith's victims.

“In our church, having compassion for non-whites is like having compassion for when an animal died, or an insect. Our compassion extends only to our own people,” said Hale, in 1999.

Five years after the Smith shootings, Hale was convicted of soliciting the murder of a judge at the Dirksen Federal Building. He's currently serving a 40-year sentence at a supermax prison in Colorado.

Smith's two-state shooting spree focused new attention on violence by extremists groups, but experts say the situation's gotten worse.

“The unfortunate reality is that over the last 20 years, we've seen a steady increase in these types of crimes,” said David Goldenberg of the Anti-Defamation League.

The Anti-Defamation League says, for example, that anti-Semitic incidents nationwide last year reached the third highest level in the last 40 years. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of hate groups in the U.S. last year rose to an all-time high.

But statistics like those do not seem to dampen the hopes of those who started the Race Against Hate to remember Ricky.

“I think one of the things that makes me hopeful is that people are getting galvanized and are getting activated to want to do something,” said Karen Singer of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore.

“I think the Race Against Hate every year is like Evanston’s shining moment,” said Sherialyn. “It shows our community just how we have all responded to turn the tragedy into victory.”