Northwestern’s fraught institutional memory of race relations
Ricky Byrdsong Jr. doesn’t really know why his father was murdered. It’s been 20 years since Ricky Byrdsong Sr. was killed by a white nationalist in Skokie, Illinois, and it all still seems too difficult to understand. His father was gregarious, he tells me over the phone on an early November Tuesday. Affectionate, too.
On July 2, 1999, Byrdsong Jr., his sister and their father were out walking near their home in Skokie. Two years prior, Byrdsong Sr. had retired from his four-year tenure as the first Black coach of the Northwestern men’s basketball team. He was working for Aon, an insurance and consulting giant in Chicago. Partway through their walk, the elder Byrdsong was shot by Benjamin Smith, a 21-year-old white supremacist. Over the next three days, Smith would continue on a shooting spree of racial hatred, killing and wounding 12 people of color or religious minorities across Illinois and Indiana.
To Byrdsong Jr., the tragedy is still baffling. If his father could have just spoken with Smith the day before he was shot, he says, there’s no way the murder would have occurred. If Smith and other killers could just better understand the people they targeted, they would restrain themselves. They would change their minds.
But Byrdsong Jr. is increasingly troubled by something else as well. It’s been 20 years, and while the memory of his father’s murder is still raw and unfathomable to him, it seems to be slowly evaporating elsewhere.
“You walk around campus these days and you ask a student who Ricky Byrdsong is, and they don't have a clue,” Byrdsong Jr. says.
Coach Byrdsong led the Wildcats to their second postseason berth ever in the 1994 National Invitational Tournament. His staff and players, in interviews after his death, described him as a servant to his community. His relationship with the University, especially given the circumstances of his death, remains deeply relevant.
But Northwestern University seems to have left Coach Byrdsong behind. Byrdsong has no memorial on campus — neither at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where his former team plays, nor closer to other historical or multicultural landmarks like the Black House. NUSports.com, the online platform for Northwestern University’s athletics, occasionally posts articles on the Evanston community’s efforts to remember Byrdsong’s death. The most recent was in June 2017.
Byrdsong Jr. doesn’t ask for much. “Just something to honor him, and to make sure people know who he was and how he went out,” he says.
While Northwestern has lagged, however, Evanston and the North Shore have attempted to fill the void. The annual Ricky Byrdsong Race Against Hate, organized by the Evanston YWCA, raises tens of thousands of dollars each year to fight hate crimes and racial prejudice. This last June, nearly 4,500 children and adults participated in the race’s 20th installment.
“The YWCA has really stepped up,” Byrdsong Jr. says. “But as far as the [University] administration goes — I’m not knocking them — I’m just saying that people don’t know the story. Especially given all the things he did for the University’s athletic program. I just don’t think he’s really honored." (Northwestern Director of Media Relations Jon Yates has not yet returned request for comment about the University's lack of commemoration for Byrdsong Sr.)
“I mean, everyone just gets so caught up in their own day-to-day,” Byrdsong Jr. added. So caught up that it can be hard to take a step back and remember.
Northwestern students have attempted their own memorials of Coach Byrdsong. A Medill documentary titled Fly Like the Byrd was released in 2009, and straddled the boundary between biopic and investigative feature as it examined race relations and white hate on the North Shore. Fly Like the Byrd spends a substantial amount of time discussing the white nationalist background of Byrdsong’s murderer, Benjamin Smith, and his ties to the local white nationalist group “The World Church of the Creator.”
Hale, Smith and white nationalism
The World Church of the Creator was led by Matthew Hale, a confidant of Smith and an Illinois lawyer, until 2003. Hale’s role in the murder of Byrdsong was unclear — Smith had renounced his membership in the World Church of the Creator the day before the shootings began, ostensibly in an effort to provide Hale plausible deniability — but his belief in the reclamation of an ethnically “pure” white America manifested itself in the brief documentary Smith filmed prior to the shooting.
Driving the same car he used to shoot Byrdsong and his other victims, Smith drapes one hand over the steering wheel and stares out the windshield. He delivers his lines with a particular nonchalance, as if the conversation he’s having could be about traffic or the workplace, and not rationale for the hate crime he’s about to commit.
“If they violate our constitutional right to say that we can’t put out our literature, we have no choice but to resort to acts of violence, and to plunge into a terrorist war they’ve never seen before,” Smith said in the video.
Fly Like the Byrd omits a seemingly crucial series of events in the relationship between Matthew Hale, latent white nationalism in Chicagoland and Northwestern itself. In the fall of 1999, Hale approached University administration with a request to start a student-led chapter of the World Church of the Creator on campus. When the University rejected his request, Hale began bringing and distributing leaflets with his organization’s propaganda to the Evanston campus. Citing Northwestern’s acceptance of federal education funding, Hale argued that his First Amendment right to free speech extended even to the University’s private property. Hale showed up on campus again on Jan. 21, 2000, and attempted to deliver a lecture on the sidewalk across from the Northwestern Technological Institute. Reporters from The Daily Northwestern, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other newspapers noted the obscenities and snowballs that Evanston locals hurled at Hale and the few supporters he brought with him.
Since Hale had announced his intention to come to campus days ahead of time, the Northwestern administration decided to encourage students to avoid the area and boycott Hale’s speech. This was largely successful, despite the lively debate in the editorial section of The Daily over Hale’s right to speak and proper methods of protest. None of the three people charged with disorderly conduct that day were Northwestern students. (The World Church of the Creator, now operating as the Creativity Movement, could not be reached for comment.)
Alan K. Cubbage, then-Northwestern’s Vice President for Media Relations, was present at the brief encounter. He summarizes his take in a few, succinct words.
“The chain of events that occurred around Matthew Hale was the way the University handles these things on a regular basis,” Cubbage told me. “I don't think the Matthew Hale incident deserves a whole lot of memory.”
Whether or not Cubbage is right — whether or not the Hale phenomenon is significant to the history of race and hatred on campus — his perspective represents reality. The Hale saga is buried in manila envelopes of email correspondences and press releases in the Northwestern archives, and in digitized copies of The Daily from almost 20 years ago. Even Ricky Byrdsong Jr., who was interviewed for Fly Like the Byrd, has no recollection of Hale’s continued connection with Northwestern, even past the death of his father.
How we forget
The question of institutional memory doesn’t stop here. The Northwestern community remembers important, dramatic episodes of its racial history, but as academic years come to their ends — as students graduate, as news cycles refresh, as things simply seem to calm down again — the community forgets. Today, Northwestern students may hesitantly say they know their university has struggled with racial equity and representation, but find it difficult to point to specific examples.
Last spring’s “It’s OK to be White” stickers, linked by the Anti-Defamation League to racist corners of online bulletin board 4chan, might be one of the most recent instances of racism-induced trauma. Some students better-versed in campus lore recall that engineering professor Arthur Butz, an avowed Holocaust denier and author of the 1976 book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, remains in his faculty appointment at the McCormick School of Engineering. Butz, now 86, will teach a 300-level electrical engineering course this coming winter quarter.
Go further back, though, and landmark events in Northwestern’s racial history seem included in the institution’s narrative on a selective basis. Symbols of the institution’s progress are remembered; representations of its failure are forgotten.
The 1968 Bursar’s Office Takeover, perhaps the greatest leap forward in minority rights and inclusion at Northwestern, is a juggernaut of a story, dependent on the resistance it faced and the context of Northwestern’s segregated past.
Black students at Northwestern endured a difficult and often hostile existence going into the late 1960s. According to Jenny Thompson, a historian affiliated with the Evanston History Center and author of the recent book The Takeover 1968, Northwestern’s admissions department used quotas for Black and Jewish students, and, for decades, students of color were forced to live in segregated housing or to refrain from living on campus at all. The first Black student to receive a diploma graduated in 1906, more than 50 years after the University was chartered. Black students were forbidden from using student amenities, like public beaches, and an unspoken agreement barred any minority participation in specific athletic teams. Illinois was not a segregated state, but Northwestern essentially operated as a segregated university.
The Takeover was, in the words of participant Victor Goode, a result of the administration’s failure to adapt to the larger African American student body that it had promised to admit in 1965.
“They had not adequately prepared themselves, and certainly not the students that they were admitting,” Goode told me. “Northwestern perceived itself to be a liberal Northern university with liberal ideals, and as such, that the ‘integration’ of the campus would be smooth and uneventful. Obviously, what they didn’t realize was that they were bringing two groups of people together—Blacks and whites—who had lived their whole lives in a separate existence. The cultural clashes that began from the first moment that we arrived on campus should have been anticipated. As they began to be reported, the administration seemed paralyzed.”
Frustration with these circumstances, combined with the University’s lack of progress to improve them, culminated in the Takeover. The Black Power movement’s appeal – particularly following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the same year as the Takeover – guided some of the occupation’s methodology.
Following the administration’s rejection of a list of demands from Black students, the Takeover began on May 3, 1968. It lasted 38 hours, involved more than 100 students, and highlighted eight areas of concern that the administration had refused to address.
The Takeover was entirely non-violent. Students refused to damage any property or harm any employees. The occupation of the bursar’s office itself, a symbol of the University’s financial might and responsibility to its students, was the main focus.
Victor Goode was a member of the team that the Takeover participants sent to negotiate with the administration, including then-Dean of Students Jack Hinz and University President J. Roscoe Miller. Goode recalls the agreement that the negotiating team reached, dubbed the “May 4th Agreement,” as both an effort to improve living conditions for Black students as well as the University’s self-perception.
“I noticed that a sticking point for [the administration] was our demand that they admit they’d been complicit in the institutional racism of the country itself and how that had reflected itself in Northwestern’s pride as a liberal institution,” Goode told me. “Northwestern wanted to retain its image—its ego had been wounded by our charges of institutional racism.”
Indeed, the student participants were largely sheltered from punishment by the administration, which ultimately agreed to increase Black enrollment, end the regressive and racist housing policies and sponsor what is now known as the Black House, among other policy changes.
It was precisely the administration’s willingness to compromise and hesitancy to punish that triggered a deluge of pushback from conservative members of the Northwestern community. President Miller received hundreds of incensed letters disparaging the Takeover, some of which used dehumanizing, violent language toward the Black students. A counter-protest was staged at the Rebecca Crown administration complex by alumnus Charles C. McCarthy, and was attended by 150 people. A petition, written by two juniors and signed by 400 other Northwestern students, deplored not the “purposes” of the Takeover, but rather the “means” they employed. (One of the petition’s authors, Frank Hytken, could not be reached for comment).
Chicago media was deeply split on the Takeover, according to Thompson, the author of The Takeover 1968. The Chicago Tribune’s editor, W. Donald Maxwell, was an anti-takeover member of Northwestern’s board of trustees. A Tribune reporter had gained enough trust with the Takeover to embed within the bursar’s office. Maxwell, upon seeing a draft of the story, made several personal edits to harm the image of the Takeover.
“When he saw what the guy had written, he rewrote it and essentially spun it—at least the beginning,” Thompson says. “He spun it like these were these militant students, lawless, reckless, hurting the University, hurting the reputation of the school. That was the Tribune’s attitude.”
The broad scope of this resistance seems to have been somewhat obscured as the Bursar’s Office Takeover became part of the institutional narrative. The 50th anniversary of the Takeover in 2018 brought a special commemorative project from the University that omits the concerted student opposition to the Takeover itself, choosing instead to stress the anger of alumni and the Chicago media.
Thompson argues that telling the story of the Takeover is difficult enough as it is — when one leaves out parts of the participants’ struggle, it becomes incomplete.
The Takeover, according to Thompson, is something of an “anomaly” in the larger history of segregation and racism on university campuses across the country. This history “is not like a trajectory that goes from point ‘A’ to ‘Z,’” Thompson says. It isn’t necessarily on an inevitable path to perfect integration and equity. “It gets better – a little better – a little worse here, et cetera. It’s pretty complex.”
She adds, “People are saying that schools are getting resegregated. We’re still, I think, living that out, and we still haven’t resolved it.
“It’s not so much like trying to hide the truth or shape the story differently,” she says of Northwestern’s institutional memory of resistance to the Takeover. “But I just think it’s so big and complicated. It’s very hard to reduce it to something easily translatable… I am on the side of tell the story, tell the history, as uncomfortable and complicated as it is. Without doing that, there’s a kind of subtle denial or a kind of unwillingness to engage history.”
Ultimately, Thompson says, “students on campus who are running into similar issues would be empowered by knowing more of the history.”
How we might remember again
Writing about flaws in institutional memory is inherently complicated. There always remains the possibility that despite the strongest intention to recall past injustices, others will remain undiscussed. If the Takeover is reconceptualized more completely, say, what about the Triangle Fraternity incident the following year, which involved the discipline of twenty-odd Black students for breaking and entering into a white fraternity house in retribution for the public harassment and humiliation of a Black female student? What about the Ku Klux Klan, which started a school spirit-based fraternity chapter at Northwestern in the early 1920s, which lasted for at least three years? What about the litany of accusations, proven and unproven, of racial discrimination, harassment and assault, dating back to the University’s inception?
It’s unclear whether we can give all of these phenomena sufficient space in our conceptions of Northwestern’s history and reputation. It’s also uncertain whether that would be necessary.
This is one of the many difficulties with revising and improving an incomplete and selective memory. Others may be a little more complex, says Ebony McGee, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, and expert on the intersection of race, psychology and education.
I asked McGee why institutions of higher education struggle to remember instances of racism.
“I'm gonna challenge you on the word 'remembering,'” McGee replied. “And I'm going to say the system is set up by design to explicitly ignore, minimize and downplay race and racism, as a way to normalize it – because it is normalized.”
She added, “we have to understand that the universities weren't set up to understand, unpack and dismantle race and racism. Many universities were actually set up for the maintenance of racism, white supremacy, by privilege. So it is no surprise to many minoritized students and faculty that the institution becomes clueless as to what to do.”
But even when the prospect of forming an equitable and just institutional memory seems bleak, few close to the epicenter of racial trauma are willing to relent.
Ricky Byrdsong Jr. doesn’t really know why his father was murdered, or what motivates people to take each other’s lives over skin color. But he wants to understand, and he wants others to understand as well.
Through his dissatisfaction with the present literature surrounding his father’s death, Byrdsong Jr. has begun a years-long project to write, film and produce his own documentary film. Through interviews with close relatives and former basketball players, Byrdsong Jr. hopes to capture a more personal aspect of his father that previous documentaries, like Fly Like the Byrd, lacked.
“I don’t want it to be just a little project that gets lost in the shuffle,” Byrdsong Jr. says. “I really wanted to go to the next level with it and make it one of the best documentaries that we’ve seen on issues like this.”
By "issues like this," Byrdsong Jr. means white nationalism and gun violence. The project website reads: “There is no better time to tell this tragic yet triumphant story and put into context where we are today.” Coach Byrdsong’s death is compared to the fatal expressions of white nationalism in Pittsburgh, Charlottesville and Charleston. “We hope to raise awareness of this type of tragedy, what led to it and what must be done to prevent such tragic violent acts,” the mission statement concludes.
But if Byrdsong Jr. himself is still struggling to understand, perhaps that’s the first step on the road to implementing stronger anti-hate values. Byrdsong Jr. is on a mission to tell his father’s story and grapple with it personally. Given the ambitions he laid out for me as we spoke about his film, he might never be completely satisfied with the outcome.
But unlike so many, at least he remembers.