Alvin Sykes, civil rights activist who investigated cold cases, dies at 64

Sykes' dedication to righting civil and human injustices earned him recognition in the US and across the globe

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Alvin Sykes, the Kansas City civil rights activist, has passed away at 64.

Sykes was a self-taught legal defender and known for reopening cold cases such as the murder of Emmett Till. He passed away on March 19 due to complications after a fall. 

“Anyone who worked in civil rights during the last several decades knew Alvin Sykes,” said the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, Brian Levin. “He changed the face of American law, and he learned it all in a Kansas City library.”

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According to The New York Times, instead of pursuing a formal education, Sykes left school after the eighth grade and studied law at the public library.

He first found success in 1983 when he convinced the Department of Justice to reopen the case of a Black musician, Steve Harvey, whose killer, a white man, had been acquitted. The federal government reopened the case, and the killer, Raymond L. Bledsoe, was sentenced to life in prison for his crime.

“I transferred to the public education system that is the public library,” said Sykes to KCUR in 2014.

Sykes was the product of rape and abused as a child. But that did not stop him from making something of his life. He also had epilepsy, mental illness and was raised in foster care.

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

Alvin Sykes, center, i Ajamu Wbster and Kansas Sen. David Haley, Kwanza 2020. Image: KANSAS SEN. DAVID HALEY

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Thanks to Sykes’ research, the case of Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old whose lynching and death caused a national outcry in 1955, was reopened in 2018.

“Alvin Sykes was a superb attorney, better than I ever was,” said Kansas state senator, David Haley to the New York Times. “I’ve watched him argue the law in front of appellate court judges. He understood the law innately.”

In 2005, Sykes pushed and co-wrote a bill to help the FBI fund a civil-rights cold-case initiative.

“(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,” said Sykes. “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.’”

Sykes relentlessness was rewarded.

“We are going to see this bill come into fruition,” said Senator Coburn in 2007. He acknowledged Sykes on the Senate floor, moments before the Senate sent the bill to then-President George W. Bush for a signature. “I can’t say enough about his stamina, his integrity, his forthrightness, his determination.”

In March of 2019, Sykes was in a hurry to catch a train and fell at Union Station in Kansas City. He was on his way to attend Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr.’s 80th birthday party, a friend and one of the last people to see Till alive. Due to a head injury from the fall, Sykes was left paralyzed and hospitalized.

He passed away at a hospice facility in Shawnee, Kansas. He is survived by his foster sister, Edna Dill.

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

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