The Pitch (Kansas City)
published: March 23, 2006
It's three in the afternoon on New Year's Eve, and a hundred or so people have shown up at the Gem Theater. Among them are celebrity politicians, including U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. Sen. Jim Talent has sent his comments in a short video. They're not here for a party, though.
Cleaver is here to bestow Kansas City souvenirs — a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum T-shirt, some Gates barbecue sauce — upon a young filmmaker from New York City named Keith Beauchamp. Over the past two years, Beauchamp has made national news for his documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. It revisits the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. The teenager's death helped ignite the civil rights movement.
Over the next hour, agony fills the Gem.
In Beauchamp's film, Till's now gray-haired mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, sits on a couch, calmly recounting her brave role in history.
They lived in Chicago. Emmett was a happy baby, she says. Nothing fazed him. His cousin, Simeon Wright, now in his early sixties, recalls that Emmett had no sense of danger: "Everything was funny to him. He shot some firecrackers within the city limits, which was a no-no."
But a sense of danger was a survival skill for black people in Mississippi, and Emmett wanted to go there to visit his cousins in the summer of 1955. Beauchamp's film shows black men hanging from trees and TV footage of a mob beating a black man for sitting at a lunch counter.
"They always kind of prepped you for going to Mississippi. Told you what the South was like," says Emmett's cousin Wheeler Parker. "I don't know if Emmett was told or not."
Emmett goes to Mississippi anyway. His cousins and their friends spend the days playing in the cotton fields; at night they go to the country store in the center of Money, Mississippi, to play checkers with other boys.
The two-story, whitewashed wooden building with big Coca-Cola signs on its façade is Bryant's grocery store. The white woman working inside is Carolyn Bryant, a dark-haired 1950s beauty.
Inside the store, Emmett buys 10 cents' worth of bubble gum.
"He and I left the store together," Wright recalls. "We didn't have any conversation with Mrs. Bryant. She came out of the store and went to her car ... That's when Emmett whistled at her. The famous wolf whistle."
If Emmett doesn't understand what he's just done, his cousins do. Horrified, they flee as fast as they can.
In the middle of the night, three days later, two men — Carolyn Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam — charge into the house were Emmett is staying. Armed with a pistol and a flashlight, they ransack the house until they find Emmett. They drag him away.
Three days pass before someone finds Emmett's body in the Tallahatchie River. It's so badly beaten that his great uncle, Mose Wright, can identify it only by Emmett's ring, engraved with his initials.
The Tallahatchie County sheriff wants an immediate burial — a literal cover-up — but Mamie Till-Mobley demands that her son's body be shipped home. The pine box arrives with instructions that it's not to be opened. The funeral director unlocks it anyway. "When I came to the funeral home, about three blocks away, an odor met me that nearly knocked me out," Till-Mobley remembers. "It was Emmett's body. That's how the smell was so strong, until it covered a two- or three-block area."
Her next words are hauntingly matter-of-fact.
"I saw his tongue had been choked out, and it was lying down on his chin. I saw that this [right] eye was out, and it was lying about midway down the cheek. I looked at this eye, and it was gone. I looked at the bridge of his nose, and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. And I looked at his teeth, because I took so much pride in his teeth. His teeth were the prettiest things I'd ever seen in my life, I thought, and I only saw two. Where are the rest of them? They'd just been knocked out. I was looking at his ears. His ears were like mine ... they curled up the same way mine are, and I didn't see the ear. Where's the ear? And that's when I discovered a hole about here, and I could see daylight on the other side.... And I also discovered that they had taken an ax, and they had gone straight down across his head, and the face and the back of the head were separate."
Beauchamp's film cuts to a photo of the corpse's head. The audience at the Gem Theater gasps.
Wanting the world to see what happened to her son, Till-Mobley holds an open-casket funeral. Thousands show up. Women faint in the line of mourners; others have to be carried out.
From here, Beauchamp's film turns to Emmett's killers — Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. With his bald head and beady eyes, Milam embodies human swine; in the courtroom, the handsome Bryant bounces his two toddlers on his lap — a good family man who has just beaten someone else's son to death.
The September trial was a media circus even by today's standards.
Emmett's mother on TV: "It's my opinion that the guilt begins with Mrs. Bryant, and I want to see Mrs. Bryant punished, her husband and any other persons that were in on this thing. And I feel like the pressure should start with the president of the United States and be channeled all the way down to the township of Money, Mississippi."
Activists repeat a decades-long call for federal anti-lynching laws, but President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress fail to act.
Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider: "I'd like for the NAACP or any colored organization anywhere to know that we intend to give a fair and impartial trial.... We never have any trouble until some of our Southern niggers go up north and the NAACP talks to them and they come back home."
It takes the all-white jury an hour to acquit Milam and Bryant. Outside, the two men light up cigars.
"I'm just glad it's over with," Roy Bryant says before he and Carolyn flaunt a long, jaw-grinding kiss.
Four months later, Look magazine pays Milam and Bryant $4,000 to publish their confession. (Beauchamp's movie avoids excerpts, but the article includes quotes from Milam such as, "I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'.")
Double-jeopardy law prevents prosecutors from putting the killers on trial again for the murder.
Beauchamp's isn't the first documentary about Emmett Till. But he got Simeon Wright to speak up after five decades of silence, and Wright hooked up Beauchamp with other witnesses. Early screenings of Beauchamp's work in progress sparked new interest in the case, and national news outlets have reported that the film is one reason that federal agents in May 2004 opened a new investigation into Till's murder.
The work of the stylish young filmmaker from New York leaves the Gem's audience shaken.
The man who really deserves the credit, though, is pacing the shadows at the edge of the theater, dressed in a gray suit that looks half a size too big. He spends a few quick minutes sharing the podium with Beauchamp but lets the filmmaker have most of the attention. If there's to be justice for Emmett Till — and countless other murder victims from the civil rights era — that may be because of the much more quiet work of a Kansas City man who never graduated from high school.
Alvin Sykes has a face that suggests his 49 years have been rough. He has no car, no cell phone. He won't say where he lives. His base of operations is the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, a community education center at 55th Street and Cleveland, but he keeps "satellite offices" all over the country — public libraries where patrons are allotted 15- or 45-minute blocks of computer time. He uses the time to send two-finger-typed e-mails to senators, prosecutors and officials in the U.S. Department of Justice. Sometimes the computer cuts him off midsentence, so he has to wait his next turn and recompose his message.
He spent the first three months of this year waiting on a phone call from Mississippi 4th Judicial District Attorney Joyce Chiles. Last week, the FBI turned over to Chiles the results of its two-year inquiry. Now it's up to her to decide whether there will be any new charges in the Till case.
J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant are long dead, but Carolyn Bryant is still alive. And for 50 years, there's been speculation that several other people took part in the lynching. Some of the accomplices may have been black — neighbors who perhaps feared they'd be next if they didn't help.
Sykes went on the crusade to get a new investigation in the Till case after a December 2002 article in the Kansas City Call noted that Mamie Till-Mobley was trying to get her son's murder case reopened.
Sykes had some experience bringing killers to justice after they'd been acquitted.
"I called Mrs. Mobley and Wheeler Parker," Sykes tells the Pitch. On January 4, 2003, he traveled to Chicago to meet with Till-Mobley. They decided to start the Emmett Till Justice Campaign. Mamie Till-Mobley would be president of the organization.
Two days later, she died.
Watching Beauchamp's film, it's clear that Mamie Till-Mobley's act of defiance was equal to the one committed by Rosa Parks. But her name isn't nearly so well known. "Even now, it's still not a popular story. It doesn't make people look good," Wheeler Parker tells the Pitch. "When I go to speak at schools, it brings back the repercussions, the atmosphere and the attitude that people really wish that kind of thing would go away and people would not talk about it."
But Sykes believed that Till-Mobley had passed her torch to him.
So he called the Department of Justice. Opening Till's case wasn't a matter of evidence, Sykes knew, but rather a matter of convincing the feds that they had jurisdiction to investigate a small-town Mississippi murder all these years later. So, as he has done repeatedly over the past 30 years, he went to the library and dug into law books.
Eventually, he homed in on a single word in a 1976 opinion by an assistant attorney general named Antonin Scalia. The opinion gave the feds jurisdiction to conduct further investigations into John F. Kennedy's assassination. The government had used the same opinion to investigate Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder. Ten years before he became a Supreme Court justice, Scalia concluded that even when violators couldn't be prosecuted for their alleged crimes (such as when a statute of limitations had run out), the public interest was still served by efforts to detect whether those crimes had even been committed. Further, Scalia wrote, sometimes the Department of Justice needs to investigate its own investigations.
After months of meetings with Sykes, Emmett Till's relatives, Beauchamp, and various Mississippi and federal officials, the Department of Justice announced in May 2004 the opening of a new, full-scale investigation.
Over the past two years, the FBI has gone back over the evidence. Chiles received the results of the bureau's investigation last Thursday.
Chiles generally refuses media inquiries about the case, but she did speak with the Pitch.
"I take no credit for the opening of the Till investigation," she says. Although her office was the one that officially requested the assistance of the Justice Department and the FBI in looking into the case, Sykes laid the groundwork for that to happen, she says. "I think it was Sykes' effort and his contacts in Washington that played the biggest role."
Chiles describes Sykes as sincere and tenacious. She remembers her first contact with him in February 2004. "I talked to him on the phone and had no idea who he was. But he was telling me about two meetings he had set up in Mississippi that he'd like me to attend. He gave me the choice of [meeting in] Oxford or Jackson. Out of curiosity, I chose the Oxford site to see who this person was who was so brazen that he would give me a choice of meeting in two places."
That meeting involved Sykes, Beauchamp, Simeon Wright and staffers at the U.S. Attorney's office. "Mr. Sykes was very vocal in why the investigation should be reopened," Chiles recalls. "We all listened very attentively to him as he spoke, and I have been in contact with him since that moment. One thing about him that I find most interesting is that he's not the most concerned with trial, trial, trial, but more or less learning the truth and if justice can be served then it should be."
If Sykes has his way, the search for truth won't end when the Emmett Till case does.
Sykes has convinced Sen. Talent to introduce legislation that could dedicate $10 million to creating an office in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting unsolved murders from the civil rights era.
Talent tells the Pitch, "When Alvin suggested it, it just hit me — of course we've got to do that."
Cynics might think that Talent — who has earned straight F's in the NAACP's annual Legislative Report Cards for his failure to support the organization's causes — is jumping on an emotional bandwagon to court black voters. But the senator appears to be devoted to bringing unsolved civil rights-era cases to justice.
Others are, too. Last June, a Mississippi judge sentenced 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen to 60 years in prison for the mob deaths of three civil rights workers in 1964.
"There were really two crimes involved in each of these cases," Talent says. "One of them is the murders that happened, and the second is the failure of the local and federal authorities to investigate. When you talk to family members, you see the echoes of the injustice just go down one generation after another. I believe that for the future of the country, we need to find the truth.... Now, that's going to mean these cases are going to be regularly brought to the surface, and that's going to be traumatic, but I think it will be healthy as well."
Talent calls Sykes his "principal adviser on civil rights," though it's an informal title. "Alvin is an enormously dedicated, focused person. He's very shrewd. You can talk to him almost like you could talk to someone who'd been in the Legislature for 10 years."
That Sykes could be advising a senator on anything is remarkable, considering where he came from.
Ask Sykes where he was born, and he'll say he was conceived in Kansas City, Kansas.
"My mother was 14 when she had me, and she was sent to Topeka to a home for unwed mothers," he says. "But Topeka was to hide my birth, so I don't really claim Topeka."
Because his 14-year-old mother was unable to raise him, Sykes was brought up by a woman named Burnetta Page. She was a wonderful woman, he says, who "fit somewhere in the family structure." He considered her his mother.
Sykes had epilepsy as a child, and it seemed to him that he spent as much time at Children's Mercy Hospital as he did in the Page house near 26th Street and Highland. He never thought he would live past 18. But when he was 11, something happened that set him on his present course.
Page had warned him about some bad people who lived across the street. Page did her best to scare Sykes away from them. "She said, 'If you don't stay away from over there, I'm gonna kill you.' She could really put the fear in you. But they had candy, so that outweighed the risk.
"Unfortunately, I should have listened to her, because they were bad people, and they raped me. It was a man and a woman."
Sykes didn't know what to do. "I didn't feel like I could go to my mom and tell her because she said she'd kill me and that was worse than what I'd gone through," he says. "But there was nowhere else to go. I decided I'd just handle it myself. I thought, I'll go back and confront them as to why they did that to me. And all they did was did it again."
His 11-year-old logic might have failed him, but the experience taught him that people sometimes need help from someone other than family or police. That realization became clearer the next year, in 1968, when riots broke out following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
Six people died and more than 100 were arrested over six days that April. "I couldn't understand why people were tearing up the community and killing folks and engaging in violence in the name of a man who devoted his life to peace," he says. "The second thing was, if they were mad at white folks, why were they tearing up our stores and our homes?" When the mob set fire to the grocery store where he bought his candy, he and a friend went into action. They rode around on their bikes and turned in people who were starting fires, and they directed traffic for firefighters.
That's when he developed two ideals to live by. He was going to help whenever someone in trouble couldn't go to their families or the police. And he was going to live past 18.
His adolescent justice campaign didn't win him a lot of friends in the neighborhood, though. To lots of folks, he was a snitch. So Page sent him to Boys Town, the Nebraska home for at-risk kids.
He spent three years there before coming back to Kansas City and enrolling at Central High School. He was soon suspended for fighting. Once again, he knew he would be in trouble with Page. So Sykes left to find his birth mother on the Kansas side.
Shortly before going to Boys Town, he'd discovered that the woman he'd thought was his cousin was actually his mother. "Up until then, things that were supposed to be true changed so much," he says. "So I guess that pushed me to be very hard at determining when something is true or not. It was the same way with the dad situation. I found out later about my natural father, but the first time I saw him in my life was when I was 27 and he was in his casket."
Things weren't turning out so well with his blood relations. Boys Town had taught him the importance of getting an education, but he was growing bored with the public schools in Kansas City, Kansas.
"I graduated from Northeast Junior, and then I went to Sumner for a minute, and then I transferred," he says. "Everybody else calls it dropping out, but to me it's transferred." Sykes enrolled himself in the school of self-education.
Every day, Sykes went to the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library. He would study, and he would take a lunch break, and then he'd come back and study.
By then, in the early 1970s, he was living with his aunt and uncle, Jolene Powell and Alonzo Powell Sr., and their five boys.
"I tried to encourage him to stay in school and go to school with my kids, but he just wasn't a school child," Jolene Powell says. "I couldn't keep him in school. He had no direction."
Actually, he did. One of Jolene's sons, Alonzo "Scooter" Powell Jr., had a band. They practiced in the basement, and Sykes started hanging around. Powell was a drummer in some of the most well-known R&B bands at the time — the Threatening Weather Band and the Get Down People Band — that played at now long-shuttered nightclubs, such as the 50 Yard Line on Fifth Street in Kansas City, Kansas, and the Inferno Show Lounge at 41st Street and Troost. Sykes, fascinated by the musician's life, became a manager for Powell's bands.
But he hadn't lost his inherent tendency to troubleshoot.
Even though he'd abandoned school, Sykes threw himself into a desegregation fight in the Kansas City, Kansas, School District. The superintendent argued that students shouldn't have a say in his busing plan, but Sykes thought they should.
"There were community meetings out in the neighborhoods," recalls Donald Burger, who was a mediator with the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service. "Alvin Sykes was active among some of the young black adults speaking out in support of student involvement. In those first meetings, there weren't all that many young black males or young adults involved. Most of the leaders were women in their early thirties who had children in junior and high schools. Alvin stood out." From there, Burger remembers, Sykes emerged as spokesman for victims of crime who had encountered problems with school district officials and police departments.
Even when Sykes was living with her as a very young man, Jolene Powell recalls, "Senators from Washington, D.C., were calling, shocking us all."
Burger would spend the next 30 years involved in Sykes' various causes.
It was around that time that Sykes met the man he calls his best friend — the famous jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. Because he was plugged into the music scene, Sykes went backstage before one of Hancock's Kansas City concerts. Sykes grew mesmerized by a strange, rhythmic noise coming from behind a closed door; after the concert, when Sykes introduced himself, Hancock explained he was a Buddhist; Sykes had heard him chanting.
Hancock became Sykes' mentor in the spiritual practice that would sustain him.
"I've watched him grow from an ordinary teenager to an extraordinary hero over the years," Hancock tells the Pitch.
When five musicians were killed in random murders over a two-year period from 1979 to 1981, Sykes' parallel passions converged.
Among the five musicians was Steve Harvey, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat at the Liberty Memorial on November 5, 1980.
"Steve was considered a prince in the music community," Sykes says. "People viewed him as a future Charlie Parker, and he was just great on that sax. Everybody knew him."
An all-white jury acquitted Raymond L. Bledsoe, who is white, in Harvey's slaying. Bledsoe reportedly bragged later that he had gotten away with murder.
"So me and Steve Harvey's widow went to the library," Sykes recalls. "I spent all day looking for something I didn't know where it was, going through the books. It was, like, 10 minutes until closing time when I found it — 18.245: Federally Protected Activities was the name of the statute." Essentially, the statute said that a person couldn't be deprived of his or her use of a public facility — which would include by murder — because of race.
After putting in a call to the Justice Department, Sykes wound up on the phone with Richard W. Roberts, a trial attorney for the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division. (He is now a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C.) "He listened to what I had to say. Near the end, he cut in and said, 'Send me what you got. We may be able to do something.'"
After Sykes' effort, U.S. prosecutors took the case in 1983. Bledsoe is now serving a life sentence at a federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.
Burger, and then Roberts, would become part of Sykes' vast network of local, state and federal law-enforcement officials. Though he lacks a high school diploma, Sykes speaks to them in legalese. And though he operates in the highly charged arena of race relations, he earns their respect by being objective.
"I put the politics aside. I don't get caught up in whatever administration is in. Whoever's sitting in that seat is who I work with. I can't see letting four years go by because the wrong administration is in power."
Sykes is essentially doing the same thing he did as a 12-year-old on a bicycle, referring to himself as a victim's advocate.
But it's not especially lucrative work.
"It ain't good for payin' well, and it ain't good for love life," Sykes confesses.
But he keeps things simple. He doesn't need much, he says. "Pay the bills, transportation, housing, and I'm good to go until the next time."
Sykes says he also has a core of supporters who will write checks for various causes. With the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, he says, "I have a salary, but it's on the deferred payment plan. My salary is $27,500 a year as president of the organization, and I guess they [the board of directors] owe me somewhere around $50,000." With increased interest in the Till case nationwide, he's starting to pick up honorariums for speaking at colleges. And the Justice Campaign now gets half the proceeds when copies of Mamie Till-Mobley's book, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, sell at Justice Campaign events.
Hancock has a deep appreciation for Sykes' work on the case. "I am just about the age that Emmett Till would have been. I'm from Chicago," he says. Jet magazine's center photograph of Till's face in the coffin gave Hancock nightmares for months. Till's funeral was a few blocks from the apartment where Hancock lived, and he remembers driving past with his parents. "I saw a man staggering out of there, out of his mind, delirious with grief, and that frightened me. This man was sobbing uncontrollably and muttering something, I don't know what. He could barely walk," Hancock recalls.
"What Alvin has been able to do with his life and his sense of justice has been extraordinary."
But the truth is, he wishes he could quit.
"I really don't want to do this the rest of my life," he says. "I get more joy out of being in a recording studio than I do being in a court of law." He wants to write song lyrics, go back to managing bands. "Being in the recording studio while the band is recording — that's what gives me the best joy. That's where I want to end."
Keith Beauchamp's movie came out on DVD at the end of February. Before he finished the film, he had a hard time getting black leaders to pay attention to him. Finally, Theodore Shaw, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told him to work with Sykes.
"It's very difficult being young — I didn't get the respect that I deserved at the time," Beauchamp tells the Pitch. "For so long, you hear your elders saying, 'What has this generation done to contribute to the civil rights movement that still exists and gave us liberation?' I talked to a lot of people, and nobody was willing to help."
He made contact with Sykes, and the two, with Donald Burger and Mamie Till-Mobley, started the Emmett Till Justice Campaign just a week before Till-Mobley's death.
On February 23, Sykes presided over a forum called "A Civil Rights Symposium: Why Must We Still Care?" in the auditorium at Kansas City, Kansas, Community College. Among the speakers were Emmett Till's cousins, Wheeler Parker and Simeon Wright.
More than 100 people were there. Except for what looked like one college class, most of them were older — old enough to remember Emmett Till's murder, old enough to have marched for civil rights.
At one chilling point, Wright remembered the night that Milam and Bryant yanked Emmett Till out of bed. Wright was 12. He knows there's someone still alive to be punished, he said.
"She was in the truck," he said. "She identified him. It was a woman's voice. She can get that blood off of her hands."
If the Department of Justice is going to go after anyone, Wright reiterated during the Q&A afterward, it's Carolyn Bryant.
But she's not talking. It's likely we'll hear her story only if she's forced to take the witness stand.
Bryant was 21 in 1955. She's now 72. She refused to speak with 60 Minutes in October 2004, but a cameraman took her picture. With short gray hair and silver-rimmed glasses, she looked as if she could have been some white kid's favorite grandmother.
At the Kansas City, Kansas, Community College forum, Wright dismissed the argument he often hears: that his family's quest for justice is tearing open old wounds.
He tells people, "You must not have been wounded. I was wounded. If I can stand it, you can."
No one knows how many civil rights-era murders remain to be solved, Sykes told the audience.
"Some were never talked about — other than that one day, somebody's loved one left and they never saw them again," he said. Many families simply fled Mississippi.
Sykes urged everyone to go home and question their relatives, dig for painful, long-held family secrets.
When the FBI delivered the results of its inquiry to Chiles last week, it announced that there would be no federal charges. This didn't bother Sykes — his strategy all along was to go for state charges, he says. As of press time, Chiles had not announced her intentions. It may take weeks before she decides whether to file new charges.
"I promised Ms. Mobley a thorough and fair investigation. I could not promise her a conviction," Sykes says.
But the fact that there's been an investigation is its own form of justice. After all, Sykes says, "J. Edgar Hoover said there would never be an investigation."
On April 19, Sykes plans to give a speech to the Mississippi District Attorneys Association, asking them to support Talent's "Till Bill." It's a major milestone, he says, being able to meet with that state's top law enforcers. Getting them to work with the feds, he says, "will go a long way toward eradicating these last vestiges of slavery, the civil rights murders."
More evidence of how far the country has come over the past 50 years: Today, justice is in the hands of Joyce Chiles, the first black female district attorney elected in Leflore County.
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