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It has been more than 20 years since Ricky Byrdsong was murdered by a white supremacist while walking in his neighborhood with two of his young children. In the days and weeks that followed, stunned neighbors came together in shared grief. The community was shaken by the senseless shooting of the former Northwestern basketball coach who “never met a stranger” and was voted ‘most likable’ in high school, according to his wife, Sherialyn Byrdsong.
“People gathered and we started walking through the neighborhood to the place Ricky was killed. We talked about what happened to Ricky and what happened to the community,” Ms. Byrdsong said at a breakfast hosted by the YWCA Evanston/North Shore on June 13 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Evanston. The healing of coming together in neighborhood walks inspired Ms. Byrdsong to start a foundation to honor her husband’s legacy as a motivator who “saw potential in people and always wanted to bring out the best in people.”
A woman she met in the months after her husband’s death suggested that they start a race to commemorate his life, his love of sports, and his compelling work with young people in the community, Ms. Byrdsong said.
Family and friends launched the Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate in 2000 to honor his legacy and bring attention to the need to combat hatred in all its forms. Entrusted to the YWCA Evanston/North Shore in 2007, the race is held annually on Father’s Day and draws over 5,000 people of all ages and from all walks of life, more than half of whom are from Evanston.
“Proceeds from the race have fueled the growth of programs that it helps support,” said YWCA Evanston/North Shore president and CEO Karen Singer. These include the racial justice program, now called the Equity Institute, and violence prevention work in schools across the North Shore including those in Districts 65 and 202, Ms. Singer told the enthusiastic crowd of attendees at the breakfast – free to all who registered.
Ms. Byrdsong engaged in an informal question-and-answer session with Ms. Singer, reflecting on her journey in the 20 years since her husband’s life was cut short by gun violence at the age of 43. Ricky and Sherialyn Byrdsong’s daughter Kelley, who was alongside her father and her brother, Ricky Jr., when shots were fired at them on July 2, 1999, also attended the breakfast. Kelley Byrdsong is following in her mother’s footsteps in becoming a teacher.
Turning tragedy into victory with the Race Against Hate has come at a terrible price for the Byrdsong family. Yet they all remain hopeful for the future and share in the deep sense of unity and community that has grown along with the race itself.
“If what happened to my family had to happen, it could not have happened in a better place than Evanston,” Sherialyn Byrdsong said.
What was not lost on the audience is that the Race Against Hate is all about love.