People
10:21 am
Thu January 9, 2014

The Life And Work Of Kansas City Civil Rights Activist, Alvin Sykes

Alvin Sykes will speak at the Kansas City Public Library later this month about his life and work.
Alvin Sykes will speak at the Kansas City Public Library later this month about his life and work.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR

Kansas City native Alvin Sykes is a self-taught civil rights activist who has done instrumental work with the justice system, particularly with unsolved civil rights crimes, including the high-profile murder of Emmett Till, and the 1980 murder of Kansas City musician Steve Harvey.

This month he is giving a talk at the Kansas City Public library, where he was the 2013 scholar in residence. Sykes educated himself in law and civil rights using resources from the city's public library system.

His research into unsolved civil and human rights abuses earned Sykes a reputation nationally and internationally. In 2007, he testified in Congress in support of what would become the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act – a law allowing authorities to re-open cold cases.

Sykes spoke with me earlier this week about his life and work:

You're a high school dropout right?

No. I transferred from the public schools to the public library, and that is why this event there is so important to me. This event at the Kansas City, Missouri Library is my graduation. It doesn't just say that I used the library, it says that I used it in such a way that my results are on a scholarly level. 

What was the first court case, or what drove you to the library to want to do this legal research for the first time?

My first case was Santa Claus, because my mother had this thing about writing with red ink, so for a whole year I just observed her to see if she kept writing with red ink. On Christmas the next year, case closed, there ain't no Santa Claus. 

Because she had written with red ink throughout the rest of the year. 

Right, right.

But there wasn't a lot of case law on that case I assume...

It didn't have to be. You start to learn how you can use other things to get to the ... in an analytical way to get to the truth. Later on, those things are important because it was later on it is those technicques that I used.

You opened some remarks before a Boston conference on crimes of the Civil Rights era a few years ago by talking about how you became an activist, it's quite an amazing story and I have the testimony here and I am wondering if you would read a few lines from the beginning of it.

I was born in July of 1956, to a 14-year-old, the result of statutory rape. I had epilepsy and mental problems and was in the hospital much of the time. At 11, my mommy told me to stay away from the people across the street, but they had candy. A man and a woman ended up raping me. I didn't know who to go to. Not mama or not anyone else. I went back to confront them, and it happened again. After that I realized there need to be people in the community to help victims. 

I didn't feel like I was going to live past 18. And so, there was a sense of urgency early in life. It took until Martin Luther King's death and the riots to instill in me that I was going to live and that I was the type of person that I was describing, and I was going to be that for other people.

You were 12 when Martin Luther King was assassinated and there were riots in Kansas City, like there were in dozens of other cities. What did you do after the riots?

I couldn't understand why there were so many other people burning up the black community behind the death of a man who devoted his life to peace.

That was really the first time you felt a calling to become a civil rights activist, is that right?

For me, yeah, that is when I first realized that I was going to live and that my mission was to be the type of person, to go-between and help people.

Well, what made you feel like at that time you were going to live longer than you thought you were?

I don't know. It was just, after King died I felt that I was going to live, and I don't know if it was like a spiritualness ...  I knew education was important to me, and that is why I don't accept the dropout.

I know you like music. Mostly jazz?

Nope. I like all kinds and varieties and music.

And you became close friends with Herbie Hancock.

Yes, he was one of the strong supporters of Steve Harvey's case, when it was a lonesome period persuing that case, he was one that kept encouraging me to go forward with it, he said, 'There is something here,'.

Steve Harvey was viewed as a future Charlie Parker, people seen him rise. So when they killed Steve Harvey, that is it.

So, that was 1980, and it was pretty notorious, I think Kansas Citians will remember that. He was violently murdered in Valley Park, and your work on that case lead to one of the first few federal civil rights convictions in the country.

Right. It was a handful - like four or five at that time - that had been successfully prosecuted under that section of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

It was out of that Steve Harvey case that you got involved in the Emmett Till case, which is your most nationally recognized.

There was a long period between there because after we won under the Steve Harvey Justice Campaign, we felt that there was an obligation to share this around the country, and for nearly 19 years it was justice campaigning and we would go around the country and work on various kinds of cases. A lot of them weren't newsworthy, weren't civil rights cases. This was was a victim advocacy organization, it would help victims of all kinds of injustices.

Like what?

Anywhere from simple assault to helping with Food Stamp rejection. If it was seen as a sense of injustice, no set formally, it was based on how people got to me in terms of time and developing the cases.

Ok, well, this Emmett Till case actually happened a year before you were born, 1955. And he was a 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. And when you got involved with the case, what was happening?

At the point that I got involved there had been two filmmakers who had made separate films on the Emmett Till case, and out of their separate efforts they believed that there were more people involved. I seen it where Emmett's mother said she had been trying to get justice since 1956, and I was like, "I was born in 1956, that means she has been trying to do this one thing her entire - my entire life. 

Just a point of clarification - she was related to Steve Harvey's widow, right?

Steve Harvey's widow was related to Emmett Till. 

Eventually, you testified before Congress on what became the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Bill.

Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. 

Tell me about how that came to be.

Well, while I was pursuing Steve Harvey's case and going back and forth to Mississippi and Tennessee and all these places down south, I kept hearing about these stories of not famous people who disappeared in the middle of the night, and nobody ever found. People would say, 'Well, you know so-and-so we never seen or heard nothing from him again.' And that was kind of a catalyst for me. I starting thinking about these other cases, because a lot of them were never reporter.

So, all these unsolved civil rights murders that don't have notoriety, that nobody is looking for, and I can't make a blank-blank justice campaign for each case. There needs to be some systemic means of going and looking at each of these cases. And that was the beginning of the Till Bill.

How has it worked?

Not well in some instances. Because there hasn't been any actual prosecution that has come out of it, but we weren't evaluating it based on how many cases were prosecuted, we were basing it on how many cases where the truth was able to be attained. There were so many cases where the family members knew there wasn't going to be a prosecution, but they wanted to know the truth. They wanted the dignity of knowing that someone took the time, looked for their answers.

We went in and said, 'If you go to the great migration route, where people left the south because of this hatred, that is where the people who had the information would be.' Well, they never did do an outreach. What they basically did is that they took the names to the Southern Poverty Law Center, names of people that they couldn't even prove was a racially motivated killing. And so, we are looking at now Till Bill two, that would expand the scope and put a more permanent structure within that goes all the way up to now, for civil rights cases.

What would you say to young black men and women about the civil rights struggle today?

First, I wouldn't limit it to black boys and girls. I would tell people as it relates to them more so, believe in civil and human rights, and strive to become absolutely happy and you will be able to overcome all those obstacles.