At 3 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, Alvin Sykes sent a text followed by a phone call to North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr who was still on the floor of the Senate.
He didn’t hear back, so he assumed the worst. His bill was dead.
But at 5:33 a.m. Kansas City time, Burr responded.
“He sent a text,” Sykes told me over coffee at a Kansas City, Kansas diner.
”He said 'It just happened. Sorry it took all night, but it’s done.’”
He was referring to the bill Burr, Sykes and a number of activists and academics have been trying to get passed. It would extend and expand existing legislation that gives law enforcement authority to reopen closed criminal civil rights cases.
It's named after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was kidnapped and brutally killed by two white men in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955. Till allegedly flirted with a white woman. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury and later confessed to the crime.
The reauthorization bill authorizes federal authorities to work with the states to look into cold cases from before 1979 — 10 years longer than the original bill. The first so-called "Till Bill" is set to expire next year.
Sykes, the architect of the first bill and shepherd of its reauthorization through Congress, says the first bill was successful in reopening over 100 racially motivated killings. While there was only one prosecution, he says prosecutions are not his primary measure of success.
“We knew we wouldn’t get that many prosecutions for cases prior to 1969 unless there was an all out man-hunt by the government,” Sykes says. "What we're looking for is the truth so families can have some closure."
The authority to investigate cold cases 10 years later, he hopes, will provide more witnesses and evidence.
Sykes isn’t too worried about the President signing the bill — as a senator, Obama was a co-sponsor of the first Till Bill.
Once he catches up on his sleep, Sykes says he is looking ahead to digging in to more forgotten crimes. And, he hopes, a White House signing ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer at KCUR 89.3. You can reach here on Twitter @laurazig or at email@example.com