Alvin Sykes, 64, Self-Taught Legal Defender of Civil Rights, Dies
After dropping out of high school, he studied law at the public library, then used his knowledge to reopen cold cases, including Emmett Till’s murder.By Clay Risen
March 29, 2021
Alvin Sykes, who left high school in eighth grade, completed his education by reading legal textbooks at the public library and later used his vast knowledge of the law to pry open long-dormant murder cases from the civil rights era — including the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till — died on March 19 at a hospice facility in Shawnee, Kan. He was 64.
Alvin Sykes in Kansas City, Mo., in 2007. Though he never took a bar exam, he was a brilliant legal and legislative operator. Photo Credit...Chris Cummins for The New York Times
The cause was complications from a fall two years ago that had left him partly paralyzed, said Ajamu Webster, a longtime friend.
Though he never took a bar exam, Mr. Sykes was a brilliant legal and legislative operator whose admirers included City Council members, politicians and U.S. attorneys general from both parties.
“Alvin Sykes was a superb attorney, better than I ever was,” David Haley, a Kansas state senator, said in an interview. “I’ve watched him argue the law in front of appellate court judges. He understood the law innately.”
Mr. Sykes converted to Buddhism in his 20s, and he led a monk’s life in the name of social justice. He rarely held a job, wore secondhand clothing and lacked a permanent address for long stretches of time, staying with friends instead and living off donations and, later, speaker fees. He never learned to drive and so walked everywhere, most often to the reference section of the library in Kansas City, Mo., where he did his research, or to a booth at a restaurant that he used as an informal office, his papers surrounded by cups of coffee and stubbed-out cigarettes.
Along with his work on cold cases, he successfully lobbied for local, state and federal laws reforming jury selection, promoting animal rights and enhancing the role of DNA in murder investigations.
“Anyone who worked in civil rights during the last several decades knew Alvin Sykes,” said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “He changed the face of American law, and he learned it all in a Kansas City library.”
His first victory came in 1983, when he persuaded the Department of Justice to reopen the case of Steve Harvey, a Black musician who had been killed by a white man in a Kansas City park in 1980. A jury had acquitted the assailant, Raymond L. Bledsoe, but Mr. Sykes argued that Mr. Bledsoe had infringed on Mr. Harvey’s civil rights on public property, a violation of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
The federal government took up the case, and Mr. Bledsoe was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The case brought Mr. Sykes national acclaim, but something Mr. Harvey’s widow said nagged at him: Her husband was the second victim of racial injustice in her family, the first being her distant cousin Emmett Till.
Two white men had been charged with kidnapping and murdering the 14-year-old Till in Money, Miss., in 1955. Though an all-white jury had acquitted them, Till’s death became a galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement.
Mr. Sykes spent years researching the law around the case, and he was convinced that there was a way to reopen it. He presented his argument to a district attorney in Mississippi, and in 2005 the Justice Department took it up.
Though the department decided against new charges at the time — it did reopen the case again in 2018 — the Till case spurred Mr. Sykes to press the government to look into similar injustices.
In 2005 he helped write a bill to fund a civil-rights cold-case initiative within the F.B.I. But the bill met potentially fatal opposition from Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican who thought that the proposal was a waste of money.
Undeterred, Mr. Sykes reached out to Senator Coburn, and after several failed attempts got a meeting with him. Following an hourslong conversation, the senator not only relented but also became an advocate for the bill.
Mr. Sykes converted to Buddhism in his 20s, and he led a monk’s life in the name of social justice. Photo credit...Kyle Carter/Reuters
“We are going to see this bill come into fruition,” Senator Coburn said on the Senate floor in 2007, acknowledging Mr. Sykes, just before the Senate sent the bill to President George W. Bush to sign. “I can’t say enough about his stamina, his integrity, his forthrightness, his determination.”
Alvin Lee Sykes was born on July 21, 1956, in Kansas City, Kan. He said that his father, Vernon Evans, had raped his mother, Patricia Sykes, who was 14 years old when she gave birth to him. Eight days later an acquaintance of his mother, 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, sexually assaulted him, twice. Ms. Page had to mortgage her house to cover his medical bills, and she later sent him to live in Boys Town, the home for at-risk youth outside Omaha.
When he returned he lived for a year with his birth mother and then with an uncle. Though he promised his uncle he would stay in school, he left after eighth grade, and to bide his time during the day he visited the public library’s main branch in Kansas City, Mo.
“There was a time when somebody like me wouldn’t have been allowed inside a library — or as a Black man permitted to read at all,” he told the journalist Monroe Dodd, the author of a short biography about Mr. Sykes. “But I was able to revolve much of my life around the library. I sought and got my education there.”
In 2013, the library named him its first scholar in residence.
Mr. Sykes joined the Marines in 1974, and when he left a year later he became the manager for a Kansas City funk band, Threatening Weather. He spent several years working in and around the city’s music scene 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 around Kansas City as a tireless advocate for victims of injustices large and small, from murder to the denial of food stamps. Nor did he limit his activism to civil rights: He persuaded his friend, State Senator Haley, to sponsor a bill making extreme cruelty to animals a felony.
Some of his positions were seemingly at odds with his civil rights record. In the late 1980s Mr. Sykes and Mr. Haley supported an application by the Ku Klux Klan for airtime on a Kansas City public access TV station. Mr. Sykes defended their right to free speech, but also said that letting them air their racist views would turn off more people than attract them. He was right: The show drew few viewers and ended within a few months.
In March 2019, Mr. Sykes was rushing through Union Station in Kansas City to catch a train to Chicago to attend the 80th birthday party of the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., who as a child was the last person to see Emmett Till alive, aside from his murderers. Mr. Sykes tripped and hit his head, leaving him partly paralyzed and hospitalized for the rest of his life.
Though he couldn’t grip a pen, he continued to work from his bed, successfully pushing for a bill to abolish statutes of limitation on childhood sexual assault cases.
One of his final achievements before his accident was a measure in Kansas establishing a task force on the use of DNA in cold cases. But after two years, with the legislation about to lapse, the task force had not returned its report, and up until a few days before his death Mr. Sykes was working the phones, trying to get the provision renewed.
It has since been reauthorized, and Senator Haley said he would propose renaming it in Mr. Sykes’s honor.
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