At long last we have met Alvin Sykes, savior of libraries, healer of disparities, a man whose faith in fellows seems to have no end. Alvin Sykes carries the rare, raw deportment of a loyalist marching into the wind, head high, arrows flying all around, confident that allegiance with truth is armor enough on the front lines against tyranny.
Alvin Sykes, the Kansas City activist, was in Lindsborg last week to discuss his belief that man can be better than he often seems, and that good is a product of faith in that belief. Sykes has become a singular figure in civil and human rights history, and on a recent Monday evening (March 14), he presented that faith to a gathering at Pearson Chapel on the Bethany College campus.
“I was the child of a child.” Sykes said ‒ mother pregnant at 13, giving birth at 14 in July 1956 in a Topeka home for unwed mothers; Alvin was taken in and reared in Kansas City by a domestic worker whom he would always call Mama. She loved the boy terribly, saw in him a restless curiosity, a boundless ability to learn. He bounced in and out of school; after 8th grade, his education took a separate course.
“I transferred to the public library,” he likes to say. The core of Alvin’s story is about learning at the library by himself, a day at a time, one book and another, reading first about subjects that interested him and, ultimately, about matters that moved him, all day, every day.
Alvin decided to become an activist after he was raped ‒ twice ‒ by a neighbor that Mama had told him repeatedly to avoid. There was no turning to Mama, or to the police so far away. People needed someone to rely on, someone between injustice and the rigid strictures in statutory enforcement.
Alvin started a neighborhood patrol, reporting crimes to police, and was later bundled off to Boys Town for his own protection; he embraced the organizational structure on campus, its governing council, the Boys Town Choir that encouraged him to make music, another of his loves. He stayed three years and returned to Kansas City. At 16 in 1972, he dropped out of school and began visiting the Kansas City, Kan., public library.
There he taught himself, moving carefully at first, then stepping into serious academics, including math, civics and, eventually, the law.
Through his research, Alvin exposed a school desegregation plan as a local scheme to clear residential neighborhoods for commercial development. He made important friends in the U.S. Department of Justice, connections that would help convict the man who murdered musician Steve Harvey in a popular Kansas City park ‒ acquitted by an all-white jury, but years later found guilty in federal court of violating Harvey’s civil rights. Alvin Sykes’s knowledge, his pursuit-by-library, his tenacity, convinced federal authorities that criminals could be brought to justice by persistent application of civil rights law.
This was how Alvin Sykes later would find justice for Emmett Till in a campaign for landmark U.S. civil rights legislation. Till, a black 14-year-old Chicago youth, was kidnapped, mutilated and murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. The murderers were acquitted in a trial. The Justice Department saw no grounds to intervene.
Documentary films in the 1990s rekindled outrage over young Till’s brutal killing and his murderers’ free ride. They also inspired Sykes, by then an articulate and passionate activist, to see that the case became a part of civil rights lore. Sykes met with Till’s family in Chicago and promised the boy’s mother that he would find justice for her son. There were countless trips to Mississippi and to Washington, meetings with members of Congress and attorneys at the Department of Justice. Sykes worked in May 2004 to draft legislation establishing a unit of the Justice Department to reopen old cases; it was called the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, known otherwise as the Till Bill. After four more years of meetings, hearings, intense personal lobbying, the bill became law.
Sen. Tom Coburn, a far-right Republican from Oklahoma, had opposed the measure and put a ”hold” on it. Alvin Sykes was determined to meet him, change his mind. It wasn’t long before Coburn became his advocate on the Senate floor: “I want to tell you something about America with this bill,” Coburn said, “and it has to do with Alvin Sykes. If you met him, you would immediately fall in love with him. He is poor as a church mouse. He has led this group with integrity. He has been an honest broker. He has not played the first political game with anybody in Washington. As a matter of fact, he has had games played on him and he has been manipulated. But the fact is he has held true to his belief and his commitment to the mother of Emmett Till. And because of that, we are going to see this bill come to fruition.
“I think that speaks so well about our country, that one person has truly made a difference. …I can’t say enough about his stamina, his integrity, his forthrightness, his determination.”
Alvin Sykes brought to Pearson Chapel the character of someone who truly wants to do what is right and find the truth. This is why so many important people ‒ public officials, prosecutors, attorneys general ‒ return his phone calls. And it is how Alvin Sykes has come to believe in man, and himself ‒ and public libraries.