Alvin Sykes

Alvin Sykes: A retrospective from a dear friend

He halted his formal education early in high school but spent countless hours in libraries to become self-taught.

South KC Perspective

Alvin Sykes’ Life

By John Sharp

John Sharp

When people tell me they don’t get involved in trying to improve our community since they don’t think everyday folks can have much of an impact, I try to remind them when I can of the life of my dear friend and legendary civil rights activist Alvin Sykes who died last month at age 64.

Sykes was a man of extremely modest means.  He didn’t own a vehicle and took public transportation, hitched rides with friends or just walked to get around.  He halted his formal education early in high school but spent countless hours in libraries to become self-taught about the civil rights struggle, government and legal matters.  He was later named the first Scholar in Residence of the Kansas City Public Library in 2013.

He was best known for his leadership in persuading Congress to pass legislation in 2007 and 2016 to reopen unsolved racially motivated murders that occurred during the civil rights struggle prior to 1980.

Alvin Sykes

This landmark legislation was named for Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American Chicago boy who was kidnapped and gruesomely murdered by white racists while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955.

Locally, Sykes led the effort to seek justice for his friend and jazz musician Steve Harvey who was beaten to death near Liberty Memorial by an assailant who, according to testimony, believed he was gay.  Despite incriminating testimony by accomplices, Harvey’s assailant was acquitted.

Sykes formed the Steve Harvey Justice Campaign, and led the effort that got the Justice Department to reopen the case as a hate crime, and Harvey’s killer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  It was one of the first few civil rights convictions in the country.

Sykes was in ill health and unable to walk the last years of his life after severely injuring his spine in 2019 when he fell over a bench awaiting an Amtrak train to take him to Chicago to celebrate the 80th birthday of Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr., the cousin of Emmett Till who was with him the night he was abducted and murdered.  Parker spoke movingly about Sykes at his services here on April 1. 

Sykes’ life story should be used as an example to all young people that if they are motivated by love for others and refuse to give up that they can have a huge impact on improving our society even if they don’t come from influential families and have few financial resources or little formal education.

Alvin Sykes was one of the most inspiring men I ever met! 

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