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This year’s Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate was a moment to move but also, the organizers said, to act on race relations in Evanston and the nation.
The event has been held every year since 2000, one year after former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong was shot and killed while jogging near his Skokie home with two of his children.
Byrdsong was murdered by a white supremacist who went on to take two more lives and would wound six other people on a shooting spree July 2, 1999, in Rogers Park, Indiana and Decatur, Illinois. He then took his own life.
The following year, his widow Sherialyn Byrdsong organized the memorial race.
“The whole idea from the beginning was that it was such a tragedy we wanted to turn the tragedy into a victory,” said Byrdsong as she oversaw the memorial race along Sheridan Road at Long Park. “We had to have a positive response,” she said. “You have to do something.”
Joining her were her three children – Kelley, Sabrina and Ricky Jr. – as well as 4,000 runners and volunteers on Sunday, June 19. The athletes walked and raced in 5K and 10K events as well a young people’s run.
It was the first time in three years the race was held in person. It was canceled in 2019 and operated virtually (runners were on their own) last year.
“To see so many people come out after not being here for two years, it really shows how much this race means to people,” said Byrdsong. “It’s amazing that it’s been 23 years and people still have the passion to be here, to make a statement about how there is power in love and unity. This is a race against hate. They come to demonstrate that. It’s just powerful.”
The YWCA Evanston/North Shore organizes the race. Proceeds go to the YWCA’s Equity Institute, which promotes racial equity.
Karen Singer, President and Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA, which took over the event in 2007, shares Byrdsong’s enthusiasm about the event, but worries that the community needs more.
“I’m so aware that we have to accelerate change,” said Singer. “So much has happened in the last several years. It reminds us over and over again that we have got to get engaged and create the change we want to see.”
Singer said she thinks back to the night that Byrdsong was shot and worries that nights like that are becoming more and more common. “When Ricky was killed, we were horrified,” she said. “Now we are becoming inured to it. That is a huge danger.”
Looking around the crowd of runners, families and volunteers filling the park on a sunny Sunday morning that was also Father’s Day and the celebration of Juneteenth, Singer said, “I think it is joyous to see so many people here. I just hope people think about this and get engaged in doing something about it. While this is fabulous, this isn’t going to do it. I hope this energizes people and I hope it sparks the willingness and need to act.”
Singer, who plans to step down from the YWCA at the end of the year, is discouraged at the slow pace of change. She said: “People need to find ways to object, to raise their voices, to organize, to say no to what they see is happening around them. I think they’ve got to teach their children. We’ve been reminded this is happening here in our community. It’s really disturbing. It’s coming from somewhere. And unless we are teaching in our homes and our schools, we are just not going to turn it around.”
She said she is worried that hatred and violence and the idea of white supremacy is still deeply rooted. “I think we can’t keep hoping for things to be different. People have got to get engaged in whatever way they can.”
Sherialyn Byrdsong voiced similar feelings.
“It’s always that glass half empty, glass half full,” she said. “I’m discouraged by what I see going on. But I’m so encouraged by events like this with people who are passionate about being agents for change to make our nation a better place.”
Here is an earlier version of the story:
Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate, which fell this year on Juneteenth drew thousands to run, walk and support the beloved event that has not been able to be held for two years due to COVID-19.
The race honors the late Ricky Byrdsong, former Northwestern University Basketball Coach and Vice President of Affairs at Aon Corporation.
In 1999, Byrdson, a Skokie resident, was murdered by a white supremacist while walking in his neighborhood with two of his children.
The same shooter in the same day wounded six people in Rogers Park, who were Orthodox Jews. Before he took his own life, the shooter killed a Korean American graduate student in Indiana and wounded an African American minister in Decatur.
Byrdsong’s wife, Sherialyn Byrdsong and her family launched this event in 2000 and turned it over to the YWCA Evanston/North Shore in 2007. Sherialyn was at the event today to speak along with others, who emphasized that the Race Against Hate is not just a once a year event but a lifestyle to fight the forces of racial hatred in our society.
You can read her story about founding the movement in her husband’s honor here.
Please catch our more extensive picture gallery when it is posted later today on our website and in Monday’s Evanston RoundTable newsletter.