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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
murder of young Emmett Till, who was killed in Mississippi after
whistling at a white woman in a store, galvanized the civil rights
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
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.
the statute of limitations had run out, it meant that there could
be an investigation for Till," Sykes says.
grand jury last month declined to indict Bryant's ex-wife, Carolyn
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.
that pledge to Mrs. Mobley before she died that we would get the
truth out," he says.
Laura Parker for USA Today 3/19/07