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

Alvin Sykes, Kansas City civil rights leader, died Friday morning at the Merriam Gardens Health and Rehabilitation Facility in Shawnee, Kansas, according to a nurse at the facility. Sykes had suffered the acute effects of a fall at Union Station two years ago from which he never recovered. Sykes was 64 years old.

A lifetime of advocacy

Sykes’ commitment to eradicating injustice has earned him worldwide recognition.

He dropped out of school after eighth grade, but didn’t call himself a dropout.

“I moved into the public education system, which 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.

In libraries from Kansas City, Kansas to Washington, DC, Sykes became a fierce student of the criminal justice system – particularly unsolved civil rights-era murders.

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

“So I watched her write for a whole year, and the red ink came back for Christmas,” he said. “I knew then that there was no Santa Claus. Case closed.”

Sykes was born in July 1956 to a 14-year-old woman who was raped. A family friend took him in when he was 8 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 a lot of time in the hospital in his early years.

“I didn’t think I’d live after 18,” he said.

But when Sykes was 12 years old, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated. Afterward, he said he had a revelation – he would live longer and felt called to become a civil rights activist.

Another thing Sykes believed saved him was his mother’s decision to send him to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, a home for youth at risk run by the Catholic Church. Sykes said he learned not only to have compassion for others, but also the art of governing. The boys took part in running the house by taking on the role of a small government.

The Steve Harvey case

Sykes’ work as an activist gained widespread recognition after he became aware of the 1980 murder of his good friend, Kansas City saxophonist Steve Harvey.

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

Sykes founded the Steve Harvey Justice Campaign and demonstrated public interest in the case with 6,000 signatures on a petition.

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

After the Harvey case was settled, Sykes changed the name of his organization to Justice Campaign of America and expanded his work to include cases across the country.

“From a simple attack to rejecting food stamps to suspending the school,” said Sykes. “If it were seen as an injustice, we would help stand up for them.”

The “To Bill”

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

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

Sykes was not born when Emmett Till was murdered, but he took the boy’s case to the Justice Department and testified before Congress in 2007 to support the law that was due to be passed in the 2008 authorities to recapture cold cases to open.

Sykes said he had told Congress that the bill was necessary to expose and investigate the legions of unknown murders that occurred before and during the civil rights era.

“(I told them) If you really want to do something to break the symbolism, there are all of these unsolved civil rights murders that don’t have the fame and that no one is looking for,” Sykes said of some systemic means to investigate each of these cases , and that was the beginning of the ‘Till Bill’. ”

Bill Whitcomb, who served as a mediator in the Kansas City Department of Justice for 30 years, came close to Sykes over the years, drawing on the activist’s community contacts and profound knowledge of cases.

“(Sykes) was a relentless lawyer and very thoughtful,” said Whitcomb. “Congressmen, senators, governors, police officers, nobody would fire him.”

In 2010, Sykes managed to convince former Kansas City Police Chief James Corwin to reopen the Leon Jordan murder case. Jordan was a former police officer who was shot and killed at the Green Duck Tavern, a club in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1970.

Jordan founded the Black Political Club Freedom, Inc. and sought re-election to a seat in the Missouri legislature after his assassination.

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

Political leader and civil rights activist Alvin Brooks worked with Sykes on the ad hoc anti-crime group that Brooks founded in the 1970s. He said KCUR Sykes has a unique style.

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

Sykes became a Buddhist after meeting American pianist Herbie Hancock in Kansas City. Hancock, a Buddhist, supervised Sykes in his practice and became a close personal friend.

While Sykes had few blood relatives in his life. But his legions of civil rights friends and fellow citizens are sure to mourn the loss of his vote at a critical time when America reckons with racial justice.

Kansas State Senator David Haley called Sykes one of his closest friends. He said he spoke to him earlier this week to inquire about the status of some urgent legislative issues.

“In his time and space, Alvin made a difference in advancing the social justice needle,” said Haley.

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

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. See KCUR 89.3 for more information.

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