Before the BLM Movement There was Emmett Till and the Man Who Tried to Bring Him Justice
More than 40 years before Black Lives Matter emerged as a movement, Alvin Sykes was doggedly questioning police brutality in cases famous, and not.
Sykes convinced the federal government to reopen unsolved 50-year-old civil rights era murders, scores of cases in Mississippi and other southern states, solving some and providing long awaited attention for the victim’s families.
He helped establish case law and a unit within the Department of Justice so that newer cases of today and crimes yet to be committed, might also be reopened in time.
In many ways, the national consciousness around race and criminal justice in America is just beginning to align with where the late Sykes always focused.
And yet, most of the throngs of people who took to the nation’s streets in marches this summer, tagging their efforts #BLM, had never heard of the Kansas native.
Sykes died March 19 from complications of a fall two years ago that left him partially paralyzed. From hospital and rehabilitation care centers in the Kansas City area he’d watched cable news nonstop.
Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. Sykes absorbed the news of each new death and watched the growth of the movement he spent a lifetime nurturing.
Sykes was a legal savant, able to find obscure federal codes that turned into new avenues to pursue cases where witnesses had died, evidence had been lost and even double jeopardy would otherwise limit prosecutions.
He never attended law school. He wasn’t a politician. He saw himself as a human rights worker, an advocate for people who society tends to pass by, mostly because they were poor and Black, like him. Sykes educated himself by studying law books in public libraries.
I met him in the early 1990’s, as a young reporter looking into the death of a Black Kansas teenager who turned up in a ravine after being chased by the son of a white police officer who thought the teen had broken into a truck. If that sounds like a current headline, similar cases punctuated all 64-years of Sykes’ life.
He approached justice in painstakingly detailed, unflappable and resolutely passionate ways.
Sykes embraced the wisdom that if justice is truly the calling, then you work with anyone who can help.
The Kansas City, Kansas native solicited cooperation from every recent U.S. Attorney General, through Democrat and Republican administrations, meeting with them one-on-one. The first was Edwin Meese in the Reagan administration. The last was Jeff Sessions during Trump’s.
Sykes’ approach had to do with finding the truth, not exacting revenge or self-glory. He wasn’t out to vilify police in the blindingly self-righteous way that so many people today practice. But he consistently unraveled cases where law enforcement’s duplicity, bias and sometimes outright racism allowed people to get away with murder.
He convinced Congress to pass legislation instructing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to dig into unsolved civil rights era murders. The legislation was named for Emmett Till, often called the sacrificial lamb of the civil rights movement. When the initial legislation expired, Sykes lobbied bipartisan support to reauthorize it, creating a permanent cold case function within the Department of Justice.
Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who, naïve to the depths of racial hatred in the South, went to visit relatives in Mississippi in 1955 and wound up gruesomely murdered.
Sykes was long fascinated by the case. He was instrumental in getting the FBI to reopen the murder investigation in 2004, for it was long believed that more people than the two men first charged (and quickly acquitted by an all-white jury) were involved.
As a reporter/advocate duo, we tracked down everyone who had any connection, Black and white. And spent hours conversing with them. It’s the type of work that provides lessons in the far reaches of grief, how the murder of one person extends for generations, coloring attitudes about race, justice and life. I’m a better reporter and human because of it.
The Till case was Sykes’ most famous pursuit, but not the one closest to his heart. That honor would be gaining a conviction for the 1980 murder of his friend and fellow musician Steve Harvey, a man who had been beaten to death by an assailant who assumed that he was killing not only a Black man, but a gay one.
In March of 2019, Sykes had been on his way to Chicago when he tumbled over a metal bench as he awaited an Amtrak train. The fall injured his spine. He never walked again. He never regained the function of his dominant left hand.
The trip had been to celebrate the 80th birthday of Wheeler Parker, Jr., an older cousin of Emmett Till. Parker is the last surviving eyewitness to the kidnapping of Till. He was in bed when the men came to the door and demanded to take him to teach him a lesson for wolf whistling at a white woman, one of the men’s wives.
Till had adored his cousin and begged to be allowed to visit other relatives in Mississippi, tagging along with Parker who was a couple years older.
Looking back at notes during our conversations since his devastating fall, I found one where Sykes was worried that Parker would feel badly, because Sykes had fallen trying to reach him.
Parker, when I called him to let him know that Sykes had passed, expressed deep gratitude and affection for his friend. He said Sykes had added a necessary chapter to his family’s history.
Sykes allowed a bit of closure, despite no new convictions. Parker, a Reverend, had given the eulogy when the family reburied Till following an exhumation and autopsy that was part of the new investigation.
In his final two years, Sykes was reliant on the kindness of nursing aides and his roommates to hold a cell phone to his ear or prop it up on his pillow so he could talk. He grew frustrated, but not bitter at his plight.
The pandemic further isolated him from visitors.
After gangrene set in in his right foot, doctors said amputation would be necessary.
He meditated for weeks, to properly thank that foot for how it had served him. Sykes didn’t drive. He took the bus, found rides with friends. But mostly he walked, miles and miles. He was a Buddhist, a religion he adopted after being introduced to the faith by musician Herbie Hancock.
The only thing left unfinished was his book, chronicling these stories and so much more. The planned title gives evidence to his spirit: “Show Me Justice: The Happy Life Journey of Alvin Page Sykes.”
©2021 Mary Sanchez. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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