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."
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 ...1