Alvin Sykes’ lifetime commitment to solving forgotten civil rights murders may soon receive a similar dedication in purpose from the federal government.
That’s a heck of a kudos for the lanky Kansas City, Kan., legal sleuth.
If all goes as planned — and it looks good with strong bipartisan support — the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016 will head to President Barack Obama for signing. The latest compromise version passed the House late Wednesday and is expected to gain the approval of the Senate during the wrap-up session this week.
This will be a milestone for Sykes, a man who uses local public libraries as office space, lacks a law license and yet has been instrumental in shedding light on some of the country’s most perplexing unsolved crimes.
The Till bill extends the work of an FBI cold-case unit to include cases up to 1980. The original bill creating that unit passed in 2008, but it sunsets next year. And it only authorized work on cases predating 1970.
Sykes is hopeful his further advocacy will eventually be able to affect the new law’s use on cases of police misconduct and for victims from the gay and lesbian community. Even if a criminal prosecution is impossible, uncovering the truth of what happened in old cases can provide dignity to the deceased, he said.
More than 100 murders were reviewed under the first Till act. Surviving family members were told of the outcomes, many receiving letters from the FBI that they long believed would never arrive. Among the most high-profile was the guilty plea of a former Alabama state trooper for the 1965 shooting death of civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson. The manslaughter plea came 45 years after the murder.
The power of such reconciliation shouldn’t be underestimated. Many people don’t realize how many African-Americans simply disappeared, especially in southern states, before and even after major civil rights legislation passed in the mid-1960s.
The new bill also encourages the Justice Department to reach out to groups like Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative. Syracuse went beyond even the work of the FBI, finding hundreds more cases that could have been reopened. Their work is similar to university law school involvement in re-examining death penalty cases, which has exonerated people wrongfully convicted.
Complications in looking at decades-old cases are obvious. As time inches forward, witnesses die, their memories fade and evidence is lost. Such realities have never stopped Sykes. They make him more determined.
The bill was named after 14-year-old Emmett Till. His body, gruesomely disfigured by torture, was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in 1955. It had been weighted down with a cotton gin fan attached to Emmett’s neck with barbed wire.
Sykes was instrumental in persuading the FBI to reopen the Emmett Till case in 2004. He also helped Emmett’s relatives to become understanding of the need for an exhumation because it had never been substantiated that the body was Emmett’s, a factor in the acquittals.
The young black teenager’s perceived infraction was that he whistled at a white woman in a Mississippi store, blasphemy in that era of deep segregation. Two white men were tried, acquitted, and then they later bragged about committing the murder in a magazine article. Both were dead by the time Sykes became involved. At the time, two documentarians believed it was possible that others were complicit in the murder. No new charges were ever made. But the FBI discovered the long-lost transcript from the men’s trial, a huge find for history’s sake.
And the solace given to Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, was priceless.
“This is the objective that I have been trying to reach for over 47 years,” she said of Sykes’ and others’ work to reopen the case. Emmett was her only child. We spoke days before her unexpected death in January 2003.
“I want a federal law that encompasses every state in the United States,” Till-Mobley said of advocacy then to reconcile how her son’s case was initially prosecuted, that “the wrongful death of a person will be taken up by the federal government.”
Her words may finally be heard.