Mary Sanchez

KCK’s Alvin Sykes goes to Washington to secure future of Emmett Till unsolved crimes bill

Alvin Sykes in 2004 with a photo of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.
Alvin Sykes in 2004 with a photo of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. The Kansas City Star

Justice is usually thought of in terms of criminal convictions. But as the years wear on, truth alone can be sufficient.

Witnesses and surviving family of victims in old murder cases eventually die. This complicates not only any hope of charges being filed and a trial, but of discovering details that could bring a sense of closure. So time is always crucial. And in many decades-old cases, the discovery of new, significant details can help relatives of victims.

Kansas City, Kan., resident and civil rights case sleuth Alvin Sykes has long lived by these insights. He’ll be taking the perspective to Washington this week as he walks the halls of Congress. Sykes is famous for his work in opening up cold cases, such as the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi, and locally, his work on the 1970 murder of politician and business owner Leon Jordan.

The man’s a walking encyclopedia of information about old civil rights murders and the case law that can be applied to reinvigorate them, even when federal statutes of limitations close.

Nearly 10 years ago, Sykes’ diligence persuaded Congress to pass federal legislation creating a cold-case unit of the FBI and within the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue civil rights cases pre-dating 1970. It was named after Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was tortured and killed after he visited relatives in the South.

Under the FBI’s efforts, more than 100 cases have been reviewed and surviving family members were informed of new findings. But the legislation making that work possible will sunset next year.

It’s time for the bill’s upgrade.

Sykes expects the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act to be introduced Tuesday through companion bills from the offices of Sens. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican; Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, a Democrat; Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat; and Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat.

Sykes arrives in D.C. on Thursday to begin convincing other legislators to join as bipartisan co-sponsors. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, has also expressed support as an original co-sponsor.

The new legislation will not have an end date for the work, making it ongoing, and removes the pre-1970 limit. It also opens the way for eventually adding police misconduct cases and cold cases where the impetus was a hatred of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. At least that is Sykes’ intention.

“All of my victories have always started with a ‘No,’ ” Sykes said.

That’s true. So expect him to prevail here, too.

Another important distinction is the inclusion of funding for private groups that have taken the lead in identifying and solving old cases. Like Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative, which identified nearly 200 cold murder cases from the civil rights era that weren’t initially on the list of 122 cases that the FBI considered under the first authorization of the Till bill.

The Syracuse program enlists the help of law school students to re-examine old documents and new leads, similar to how other efforts have looked into death penalty cases and sought to exonerate the wrongly convicted. The new legislation will allow for such non-government groups to apply for grants and possibly to collaborate with investigators.

Sykes said a problem with the old effort was that it did not do enough to track down the descendents of victims as families migrated north from Southern states, where many of the civil rights era murders occurred. So the need for outreach, promoting the effort to the public, is great, he said.

The FBI’s effort resulted in a guilty plea from a former Alabama state trooper in the 1965 shooting death of civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson. The plea deal for second-degree manslaughter came 45 years after the slaying.

In other cases, surviving family received letters that detailed what agents found out upon reopening investigations. That alone brought solace for many.

And there was also some correcting of family lore. Sykes said in one old case, the Ku Klux Klan had long been blamed for a murder. But in fact, the FBI discovered that it was a family member who had committed the crime.

“We would view that as a victory,” Sykes said. “Finding the truth is a win.”