Alvin Sykes, 64, Self-Taught Authorized Defender of Civil Rights, Dies

Alvin Lee Sykes was born on July 21, 1956 in Kansas City, Kan. He said his father, Vernon Evans, raped his mother, Patricia Sykes, who was 14 when she gave birth to him. Eight days later, an acquaintance of his mother’s, Burnetta F. Page, took him in as a foster child.

He is survived by Edna Dill, his foster sister.

Mr. Sykes had a painful childhood. He suffered from epilepsy and mental illness and was in and out of the hospital. Two of his neighbors, he said, both adults, had sexually assaulted him twice. Ms. Page had to mortgage her house to cover his medical bills, and she later sent him to Boys Town, the home for youth at risk outside of Omaha.

After his return he lived with his birth mother for a year and then with an uncle. Despite promising his uncle to stay at school, he went after eighth grade and attended the main public library branch in Kansas City, Missouri, during the day.

“There was a time when someone like me wasn’t allowed to go to a library – or even read as a black man,” he told journalist Monroe Dodd, the author of a short biography on Mr. Sykes. “But I’ve been able to revolve around the library for a large part of my life. I looked for and received my training there. “

In 2013 the library made him its first visiting scholar.

Mr. Sykes joined the Marines in 1974 and when he left a year later he became the manager of a Kansas City radio band, Threatening Weather. He worked in and around the city’s music scene for several years and met the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. The two became friends, and Mr. Hancock, a Buddhist, persuaded Mr. Sykes to convert.

His success in the Harvey case made Mr. Sykes famous in Kansas City as a tireless advocate for victims of injustices, great and small, from murder to denial of food stamps. Nor did he limit his activism to civil rights: he persuaded his friend, Senator Haley, to sponsor a bill that makes extreme animal cruelty a crime.

Some of his positions appeared to be at odds with his civil rights record. In the late 1980s, Mr. Sykes and Mr. Haley sponsored a Ku Klux Klan application for airtime on a public television station in Kansas City. Mr Sykes defended their right to freedom of expression but also said that if they expressed their racist views it would deter more people to lure them than to lure them. He was right: the show drew few viewers and ended within a few months.

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