KC civil rights activist Alvin Sykes remembered for lifelong pursuit of justice

Alvin Sykes testifies on June 12, 2007 // Screenshot by CSPAN

Kansas City activist Alvin Sykes, best known for his work in pursuing justice in unsolved civil rights murders, died Friday at the age of 64.

Sykes suffered a fall at Union Station two years ago and has suffered acute effects ever since. The fall injured his spine and caused significant paralysis. He was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.

Sykes used a wheelchair and said, “I will be on my way to justice,” says longtime friend Ajamu Webster.

A 14-year-old woman who was raped gave birth to Sykes in July 1956. When he was eight days old, he was placed in the care of a family friend. His unofficial adoptive mother sent him as a child to Boys Town in Omaha, NE, a home for vulnerable youth run by the Catholic Church. Sykes said he saved him. He says he learned compassion for others and the art of governance from his time in Boys Town. The boys took on small government roles to lead the community.

In his early years it was not easy to become a victim of sexual assault and suffer from epilepsy and mental illness. Much time was spent in the hospital.

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

Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. was murdered when Sykes was 12 and he said he would live long and become a civil rights activist.

He gained recognition after campaigning for his good friend, Kansas City saxophonist Steve Harvey, who was murdered in 1980. Sykes did research in the library to find legal grounds to challenge the court after Harvey’s brutal murder in Penn Valley Park resulted in an acquittal in a year. Its results were taken to the Justice Department and the case reopened.

The Steve Harvey Justice Campaign was launched by Sykes and over 6,000 signatures on a petition showed public interest in the case. The killer was sentenced to life in prison two years later for the racially motivated murder of Steve Harvey.

Sykes changed the name of his organization to Justice Campaign of America after the Harvey case was settled and expanded his work nationwide.

Working on the Emmett Till murder case earned Sykes national and even international recognition. Till, a black 14-year-old, was beaten, mutilated, and dumped in a Mississippi River after a white woman accused him of whistling the whistle. An all-white jury from Mississippi acquitted the killers, but they later confessed to the crime and the woman admitted to falsifying her story.

Sykes was the driving force behind the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which led to the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative in 2006.

“In my opinion, Alvin Sykes is the leading lawyer in the justice system, a fighter for civil liberties for our generation,” says Webster.

The Kansas City Police Department reopened its investigation into the 1970 murder of politician and business owner Leon Jordan, thanks to Sykes. New evidence in 2010 suggested local gangsters or their associates were involved in the murder.

Friends say Sykes was a force of nature who loved jazz, practiced Buddhism, and inspired everyone around him after the Kansas City star.

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