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Brian Levin, J.D.

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For Unsolved Civil Rights Era Killers Time Is Formidable Accomplice

Posted: 11/07/11 08:36 AM ET

Time is quickly running out to right the wrongs of a bygone era where the most vicious form of violence and hate ran rampant with seeming impunity. It is an era that most of us would rather leave to the anonymity of history. The immersion in the now, and the drumbeat of contemporary pursuits both grand and banal, leaves little room for even the most disquieting, yet compelling issues of our past. We are so over that era--after all we even have an African-American president now.

However, when our future president entered the world as an infant maimings, arsons, shootings, lynchings and bombings exploded out of the quiet darkness as part of an unrelenting war on our Black and Brown neighbors. In many parts of the country President Obama's parents could be imprisoned simply for being married. The Klan, not al Qaeda was the primary terrorist organization to be reckoned with. And a war was being waged on our most vulnerable citizens to keep them exactly that way. There were no blacks serving as Senators, big city mayors, Ivy League Presidents, CEO's of Fortune 500 companies or heads of major sport franchises. And in the South black and brown life existed at the whim of the most angry and ignorant of white folk.

The façade of gently rolling green hills, bucolic farms and small towns with maple and magnolia tree lined winding roads hid the stench of murder. It wasn't merely the landscape that continually masked these killings, but a combination of time and acquiescence by communities and our insouciant justice system. Shrugging off the most horrific and unimaginable of evils is possible when the primary divergence in many white communities was the enforcement method, rather than the segregationist goal. The evils of the day were committed by remarkably unremarkable killers who believed they had a license to kill and history on their side. This license seemed to be repeatedly validated with the passage of time.

One Man's Crusade Galvanizes Others
Had Alvin Sykes been an adult in the South during the Civil Rights era, he likely would have been a target of the Klan. A tall handsome and lanky figure, I have never seen Alvin say no to anyone who came to him with a case of injustice. Born to a 14 year old single mom in Kansas City, Mo., Alvin dropped out of high school in the 9th grade. He worked to desegregate Kansas City schools, increase jury pools, and rallied around the cases of those who had been killed. One such case involved the murder of Jazz musician Steve Harvey who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by a defendant who was acquitted by a local jury.

Alvin poured over the case and all the relevant federal criminal statutes in his local public library when he found a small hook in the federal law that gave the federal government jurisdiction. His dogged determination and thorough research caused a justice department lawyer to pursue the case to conviction with a life sentence for the killer.

Decades later, Alvin formed the Emmett Till Justice Campaign with Emmett's mother Mamie Till Mobley in January 2003 to shed a renewed spotlight on "cold cases" from the Civil Rights era. Chicagoan Emmett Till, 14, was brutally lynched in 1955 in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Two days after her meeting with Sykes and now deceased former Justice Department employee Donald Burgher, Ms. Mobley perished from a sudden heart attack. Alvin worked tirelessly to make good on his promise to her to pass a law in Emmett's name to devote resources to these cases.

Alvin Sykes and young New York documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, along with projects at Syracuse and Northeastern Universities and others assisted the Justice Department and FBI to find clues to many of the murders from the Civil Rights era that went unsolved. An indefatigable Sykes, finally saw the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act signed into law President George Bush in October 2008.
Despite the best efforts of Sykes, civil rights activists and devoted FBI agents among others, the money and deadlines granted by the Till Act are running out. With cases going back as far as 1934 time has taken a toll. Deaths, double jeopardy protections for defendants and lack of evidence have been formidable obstacles. In addition the limited federal laws from that era and statutes of limitations, which limit their subsequent use, even in cases resulting in death have yielded disappointedly mixed results as well.

The two most fundamental currencies of life are heart and time. Alvin has devoted both to this cause. Unfortunately, time is running out on both the Till Act, which expires soon, as well on witnesses, perpetrators and evidence. Let's use the power of social media to find whatever clues we can to solve the unsolved and right injustices that still stain our nation's promise of equality.

 

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