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Alvin Sykes, Self-Taught Legal Scholar And Civil Rights Advocate, Dies at 64

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Alvin Sykes' dedication to righting injustices earned him recognition across the globe.

Sykes was an icon among Kansas City's civil rights activists. While he had a hard-headed, solo working-style, his success in drawing attention to unsolved civil rights cases is recognized nationwide.

Kansas City Civil Rights leader Alvin Sykes died Friday morning at Merriam Gardens Healthcare and Rehabilitation facility in Shawnee, Kansas, according to a nurse at the facility. Sykes had been suffering the acute affects of a fall at Union Station two years ago from which he never recovered. Sykes was 64.

A lifetime of advocacy

Sykes' dedication to righting injustices earned him recognition across the globe.

He left school after eighth grade, but he didn't call himself a dropout.

“I transferred to the public education system that is the public library,” he said in a 2014 interview with KCUR. He was in the library every day, he said. The librarians became his de facto teachers.

It was in libraries from Kansas City, Kansas, to Washington, D.C., that Sykes became a fierce student of the criminal justice system — particularly unsolved murders of the civil rights era.

He attributed his thirst for knowledge and truth to his adoptive mother, who instilled in him a love of reading. He said his first investigation was the case of Santa Claus. As a 9-year-old growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, he noticed the only time his mother wrote in red was at Christmas, which made him suspect she was surreptitiously posing as Santa.

“So, for a whole year, I just observed her writing, and come Christmas, again the red ink,” he said. “I knew then, ain't no Santa Claus. Case closed.”

Sykes was born in July 1956 to a 14-year-old woman who was a victim of rape. A family friend took him in when he was eight days old and raised him as his unofficial adoptive mother.

Sykes said he was also a victim of sexual assault as a young boy. He had epilepsy and mental illness and said he spent much time in the hospital during his early years.

“I didn’t think I would live past 18,” he said.

But when Sykes was 12, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. He said after that, he had an epiphany — he would live longer and felt called to become a civil rights activist.

Another thing that Sykes believed saved him was his mother’s decision to send him to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, a non-profit home for at -risk youth. Sykes said he learned not only compassion for others but the art of governing. The boys participated in running the home by taking on the roles of a small government.

The Steve Harvey case

Sykes' work as an activist became widely recognized after his attention to the 1980 murder of his good friend, Kansas City saxophone player Steve Harvey.

When Harvey’s brutal killing in Penn Valley Park ended in an acquittal, Sykes took it upon himself to scour resources at the library until he found legal grounds to challenge the court's decision. He took his findings to the Justice Department the next year, which reopened the case.

Sykes went on to establish the Steve Harvey Justice Campaign, demonstrating public interest in the case with 6,000 signatures on a petition.

Two years later, the killer was sentenced to life in prison for the racially motivated murder of Steve Harvey.

Once the Harvey case had been adjudicated, Sykes changed the name of his organization to the Justice Campaign of America and expanded its work to cases nationwide.

“Anywhere from a simple assault to food stamp rejection to school suspension,” Sykes said. “If it was seen as an injustice, (we would) help advocate.”

The "Till Bill"

But it was his work on the Emmett Till case that brought Sykes national — even international — recognition.

Till was a Black 14-year-old who was beaten, mutilated and thrown in a river in Mississippi after a white woman accused him of whistling at her. The killers, all white, were acquitted by an all-white Mississippi jury. They later confessed to the crime and the woman admittedshe made up the story.

Sykes hadn't been born when Emmett Till was murdered, but he took up the boy’s case with the Justice Department and testified before Congress in 2007 in support of what would become The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act — a law enacted in 2008 allowing authorities to re-open cold cases.

Sykes said he told Congress the bill was necessary to uncover and investigate the legions of unknown murders that took place before and during the civil rights era.

“(I told them) if you really want to do something to get past symbolism, there's all these unsolved civil rights murders that don't have the notoriety and that nobody is looking for," Sykes said. “I said 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.'”

Bill Whitcomb, who worked as a mediator at the Kansas City office of the Justice Department for 30 years, became close to Sykes over the years, relying on the activist’s contacts in the community and deep knowledge of cases.

“(Sykes) was a relentless advocate and very thoughtful,” Whitcomb said. “Congressmen, senators, governors, cops, no one would dismiss him.”

In 2010, Sykes was successful in persuading former Kansas City Police Chief James Corwin to reopen the murder case of Leon Jordan. Jordan was a former policeman who was shot and killed in 1970 at the Green Duck Tavern, a club he owned in Kansas City, Missouri.

Jordan founded the Black political club Freedom, Inc. and was seeking reelection to a seat in the Missouri legislature when he was killed.

Sykes learned of new evidence and believed the only just move was to reopen the case while the suspects were still at large.

Political leader and civil rights activist Alvin Brooks worked with Sykes at the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, which Brooks founded in the 1970s. He told KCUR Sykes had a unique style.

“He worked solo, a one-man show,” Brooks said. “He rarely had a job, but he worked full time. When he got on to a case, he was a pit bull and made up his mind he would go with it to the end.”

Sykes became a Buddhist after he met American pianist Herbie Hancock in Kansas City. Hancock, who was a Buddhist, mentored Sykes in his practice and became a close personal friend.

While Sykes had few blood relatives in his life, his legions of friends and fellow civil rights fighters are certain to mourn the loss of his voice at a critical time in America's reckoning with racial justice.

Kansas State Sen. David Haley called Sykes one of his closest friends. He says he spoke with him earlier this week, only to be quizzed on the status of some pressing legislative issues.

"In his time and in his space, Alvin has made a difference in moving the needle forward for social justice, " Haley said.

Haley and others overseeing Sykes' affairs are working on memorial plans.

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