Alvin Sykes learned a few things the last time he tangled with Washington.
Friendships can break down partisan divides. Congress runs on its own clock. And it’s good to know someone who can get a phone call returned from the White House.
Sykes, of Kansas City, Kan., is well known for his efforts to solve racially motivated murders dating back decades. In 2008, he got Congress to pass the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which has the FBI and the Justice Department attempting to resolve pre-1970 cases before witnesses and suspects die.
Getting the bill signed into law took years. The law has a 10-year sunset.
So Sykes is starting now. This go-round, he is pressing for an executive order from President Barack Obama to make the cold case unit permanent within the Justice Department. There would be no limits on when a crime occurred.
Sykes has a recently retired senator, Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, on his side.
“Alvin Sykes is one of my heroes,” Coburn said in a phone interview. “The man has dedicated his life to finding out the truth, and politicians have stood in his way.”
Coburn held up the original Till bill for more than a year with concerns about overlap in existing efforts and funding. That is, until Sykes got an audience with the senator.
Coburn said he’s urging Obama to meet with Sykes, making the request in recent weeks through a letter and a phone call.
Sykes believes a permanent unit would allow the work to continue despite administration changes and the whims of Congress. Sykes also emphasizes that many decades-old civil rights cases involved police and sheriffs who back then were often complicit or even active participants in the violence.
A reauthorized Till bill would ensure that current misconduct cases — like the allegations raised in Ferguson, Mo. — wouldn’t be lost in the thousands of complaints made annually.
Police misconduct falls into the Till bill purview because the accusation is that a government official abused his or her power, therefore denying a person his or her civil rights. The race of the individuals doesn’t matter.
But Sykes is cognizant that racial tensions and differing political perspectives often complicate finding resolution. It’s another reason he is grateful for Coburn and the former senator’s willingness to tap Obama for a favor.
“For justice to be served, we have to be able to work together,” Sykes said.