The Kansas City Star
Oct. 08, 2008
On Tuesday, President Bush signed H.R. 923 without fanfare.
With the stroke of the president’s pen, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act became law.
The law adds to the growing legend of Alvin Sykes, who was able to achieve what crafty lawyers and influential Washington lobbyists find almost impossible: He persuaded the House and the Senate to agree on something.
Watching Congress vote last week on the Wall Street bailout illustrated just how hard that is to accomplish that these days.
The legislation , known as the Till Bill, essentially will fund investigations of unsolved homicides from 1970 on back.
Sykes not only came up with the idea for the Till Bill, he also helped craft the legislation. The law creates two positions, a special supervisory agent over the civil rights unit of the FBI and a deputy chief of the criminal section of the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department, who will investigate the unsolved cases. The bill also authorizes up to $135 million over 10 years for investigations.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, put a hold on the legislation for 15 months, but the persuasive Sykes eventually persuaded Coburn to lead the charge for its passage.
In the end, Coburn wasn’t pleased that the Senate’s Democratic majority wouldn’t cut other priorities within the federal budget to pay for the bill. But not even those concerns could dull Coburn’s glowing praise for Sykes.
“I can’t say enough about his stamina, his integrity, his forthrightness, his determination,” Coburn said of Sykes. “So I come to the floor of the Senate to sing his praises and to recognize him publicly for his tremendous efforts.”
The Till Bill is named after Emmett Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago who was beaten and killed Aug. 28, 1955, after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. An all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan, who eventually admitted their involvement to Look magazine.
Now that the Till Bill is law, it will create what Sykes calls the greatest criminal manhunt in this country’s history.
“We’re hopefully going to find these perpetrators and have them held criminally accountable for their deeds that were done so long ago that they thought they had gotten away with it,” Sykes said.
Sykes is a bit disappointed that the president didn’t hold a signing ceremony for the bill at the White House.
“We wanted it to be at the White House, so Emmett Till’s family could benefit,” Sykes said. “However, we’re going to do our celebrating of the bill in the courtrooms across America when the cases are prosecuted. We’re already celebrating by striking fear into the hearts of those old men who thought they got away with these crimes.”
Sykes’ work inspired a local rapper, Roger Suggs, to create a song called “Emmett Till.” The song can be accessed at www.myspace.com/vigalantee.
“I decided to do it in hip-hop form,” Suggs said. “There are many young people who don’t even know about Emmett Till. I hope it makes people run back to the library to learn more about him.”
Sykes is an example of a regular guy who has done some remarkable things. He doesn’t have a juris doctorate, a high school diploma or even a GED. However, his victories in the courtroom and now in Congress rival those of many savvy lawyers and statesmen.
Sykes can be pushy and a bit of a gadfly sometimes. No one can deny his effectiveness. He’s never let his education limit his dreams or his goals.
As a result, Sykes will forever be associated with an important piece of civil rights legislation that passed Congress with unanimous consent. With partisan politics ruling the day, that can’t be minimized or diminished in any way.
To reach Steve Penn, call 816-234-4417 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2009 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansascity.com
Perseverance Pays Off For Civil Rights Activist
Alvin Sykes Has Successfully Urged Feds To Reopen Cold Cases
Alvin Sykes holds none of the standard credentials to wield influence in the power corridors of Washington, D.C. He is not a lobbyist or an attorney, nor did he graduate from a prestigious college. In fact, he is a high school dropout.
Yet senators listen to him. Prosecutors return his calls. As a self-made civil rights activist, Sykes persuaded the Justice Department to re-investigate the 1955 slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till, and he deserves a fair share of the credit for the department's recent decision to review as many as 100 old murders in 14 states.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the investigation as Congress prepares to vote on a bill that would set up a permanent cold case unit in the Justice Department to probe those old crimes.
Last year, Sykes, as chairman of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, persuaded his then-home-state senator, Jim Talent, R-Mo., to introduce the bill. Since then, Sykes and other civil rights leaders have helped sell it. Although Talent lost his seat in last fall's election, the bill — which authorizes $11.5 million to fund the unit — has new sponsors and has gained momentum in both houses and parties.
"He reflects the spirit of the civil rights movement, where ordinary people found a way to make a difference," says Brenda Jones, spokeswoman for Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., whose beating during a protest march through Selma, Ala., in 1965 helped propel the Voting Rights Act through Congress. Lewis is sponsoring the House version of the Till bill.
Sykes is described by those who know him as tenacious and informed. "He's a very pragmatic man," says Donald Burger, a retired Justice Department mediator who met Sykes in the 1970s during battles to desegregate Kansas City, Mo., schools.
U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee of Mississippi's northern district in Oxford had never heard of Sykes when Sykes asked him in 2004 to reopen the Till case.
The case was legendary. Most of the principals were dead or old and in poor health. The statute of limitations on applicable federal laws had expired. Only state charges related to murder or manslaughter remained possible.
Sykes arrived in Oxford armed with a legal argument that laid out why the FBI had jurisdiction to proceed with a new federal probe. "He was extremely informed and very logically presented why it should be looked into," Greenlee says.
Sykes grew up poor and sickly in Kansas City, the product of a 14-year-old mother and a father he never knew. "When I first met him, he was in his casket," Sykes says of his father. "I was 27.
Prone to schoolyard fights, Sykes dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Although he once dreamed of becoming a lawyer, he got most of his education from the public library. To support himself, Sykes found a job managing a local R&B band, Threatening Weather.
After campaigning to desegregate Kansas City schools, he helped persuade Missouri legislators to lower the age of jurors from 21 to 18, thus widening the pool of potential jurors. He also persuaded the Justice Department to re-investigate the mysterious death of a black teenager in Kansas City in 1985 Although the report was inconclusive, the federal involvement helped calm local residents, who had been skeptical of the local police investigation, Burger says.
He adds: "That would never have happened if it hadn't been for Alvin."
Sykes' major achievement involved the 1980 murder of a local jazz musician named Steve Harvey, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat. The man charged with the murder had been acquitted.
Sykes thumbed through library law books and found an obscure federal statute that essentially said a person couldn't be deprived of his use of a public facility because of race. Using contacts he had made at the Justice Department during the school desegregation struggle, Sykes contacted Richard Roberts, the attorney in the civil rights division who was looking into the Harvey case. "He said, 'Send me everything you've got,' " Sykes says. In 1983, Roberts won the conviction of Raymond Bledsoe on federal civil rights violation charges. He is now serving a life sentence.
"He didn't just call once," says Roberts, now a federal district judge in Washington, D.C. "Ordinarily, people who want to know about a case will go to their local U.S. attorney. I was struck by the fact that Sykes did not rest with that. He pressed forward with more research on his own. His questions to me were pointed and showed someone who had done his homework."
The murder of young Emmett Till, who was killed in Mississippi after whistling at a white woman in a store, galvanized the civil rights movement.
Although Till's killers were known — Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted a month after Till's death and later confessed in an interview with Look magazine — subsequent investigations centered on whether the men acted alone. Trial testimony suggested that Bryant's then-wife might have been with her husband and brother-in-law when Till was abducted.
Sykes pored over library law books and consulted with his Justice Department contacts. They steered him to a 1976 opinion by Antonin Scalia, then an assistant attorney general and now a Supreme Court justice, that gave the federal government jurisdiction to conduct further investigation into President Kennedy's assassination. The same opinion was used to investigate Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder.
"Even if the statute of limitations had run out, it meant that there could be an investigation for Till," Sykes says.
A Mississippi grand jury last month declined to indict Bryant's ex-wife, Carolyn Bryant Donham.
To Sykes, that doesn't mean the end of the Till case. He says he made that promise to Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, before she died in 2003.
The FBI has compiled 8,000 pages of notes and interviews. Now Sykes wants the Justice Department to publish a report of the investigation.
"I made that pledge to Mrs. Mobley before she died that we would get the truth out," he says.
Credit – Laura Parker for USA Today 3/19/07
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