In the evening of July 2, 1999, Benjamin Smith was driving past a playground in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, where Ricky Byrdsong was playing with his two youngest children. The two men had never met.

Byrdsong, the former head basketball coach at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, was African American. That was good enough for Smith, 21, a member of the white supremacist World Church of the Creator.

Smith opened fire, hitting Byrdsong multiple times with exploding bullets, before speeding off. During his rampage, Smith shot ten other people—including African Americans, Jews, and Asian Americans—then killed himself. Byrdsong and another of Smith's victims died.

For Sherialyn Byrdsong, now 46, the shock of losing her husband was matched by anger about his murderer's motive. She told Christianity Today, "When the only motive that the killer had was the color of your skin—not anything that you have done—it makes it so hard for the family members to process."

Increasing numbers

Ricky Byrdsong's death represented one item on the FBI's 1999 list of 7,876 hate crimes—defined as "a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/ national origin."

While national crime rates have fallen in recent years, the number of hate crimes has grown. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, there were 9,726 hate crimes in 2001 (the last year for which statistics are available). This represents a jump of 23 percent from 1999.

Religiously motivated hate crimes are increasing, too, particularly because of suspicion fueled by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of hate crimes reported by states in 2001, 18 percent were based on religion; the majority of these, more than 1,100 cases, were attacks on Jews. Only 35 hate crimes were reported against Protestant Christians.

Hate crimes based on national origin jumped by more than 1,100 in 2001, mainly because of attacks on Arabs, Pakistanis, and immigrants from India.

Murders accounted for only 10 of the hate crimes in 2001. Most involved assault, vandalism, or the more nebulous concept of intimidation.

Tuvya Zaretsky, who leads Jews for Jesus' Los Angeles branch, told CT that he and other members of his staff have faced physical assault and vandalism motivated by anti-Semitism. "Just because I became a believer in Jesus doesn't mean that I stopped being Jewish," Zaretsky said.

Sherialyn Byrdsong is battling hate on two levels. Haman Cross, her pastor, suggested she start a foundation to combat racial hatred. After praying about it, she sensed God's leading and started the Ricky Byrdsong Foundation, a nonprofit organization that tries to reach students before they learn how to hate.

The foundation runs the Ricky Byrdsong Not Just Basketball Camp for junior high students. The summer camp combines basketball skills with lessons on diversity. The foundation also started a "Super Saturday Enrichment" program for high school students in Evanston and Skokie.

Lobbying for legislation

Byrdsong also is working on the more controversial legislative level. Last year she was a prominent advocate for an Illinois hate-crimes law, House Bill 136. The law, which went into effect January 1, covers crimes based on animosity toward religion, sexual orientation, national origin, and other categories.

Under the law, those who commit or encourage hate crimes can face prosecution. Byrdsong also supports passage of a federal hate crime bill, the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (s) of 2003. The LLEEA, first introduced in March 2001, has been stalled in the House and Senate since last summer.

Citing civil rights concerns, opponents in the House and Senate have blocked expanded federal hate crimes legislation since 1997. Current federal hate crime legislation applies only to acts of racial, ethnic, and religious hatred that interfere with federally protected rights, such as housing, voting, education, or jury duty. It does not apply to hate-based violent crime.

The LLEEA would criminalize acts of violence based on prejudice, provide grants of up to $100,000 to local authorities investigating hate crimes, and standardize the definition of hate crimes.

Some of the strongest support for federal hate crimes law comes from gay rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Forty-four states have hate crime statutes, all with their own definitions.

Many evangelical Christians disagree with Byrdsong about the need for such laws. Peter Spriggs, senior director of culture studies for the Family Research Council, says hate crime laws create protected categories of victims who are seen as more important than other victims. Spriggs says vigorous prosecution, not creating special categories of victims, is the appropriate response to hate-motivated crime.

Regardless of how the legislative debate turns out, Byrdsong believes the problem requires more than new laws. "We really need to be a nation that turns back to God and to godly living," she said. "I see that as being the only solution."

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Related Elsewhere

The official website of The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation has more information on the advocacy and mission of Sherialyn Byrdsong.

The Byrdsong tragedy is explored in depth in the book No Random Act: Behind the Murder of Ricky Birdsong.

In 2001, Christianity Today sister publication Today's Christian Woman profiled the Byrdsongs in "Turning Hate Around How wife-turned-advocate Sherialyn Byrdsong is surviving her husband's murder in order to teach others about racial reconciliation."

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