Kansas City, Mo. A Kansas City man who was the driving force behind an effort to bring civil rights-era offenders to justice is preparing to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder to jump-start efforts to find criminals because “people are dying and memories are fading.”
Alvin Sykes is widely credited with the idea behind the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which authorized up to $135 million over 10 years for investigations of civil rights-era killings and established a permanent cold case unit in the Justice Department.
The law is named for the black 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was lynched for whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Sykes persuaded the Justice Department to reinvestigate Till’s case in 2004. No one has been convicted.
Sykes plans to meet with Holder to urge him to focus more energy on finding witnesses, victims and evidence before it’s too late. The meeting had been set for Tuesday, but is being rescheduled because Holder was traveling.
“People are dying and memories are fading,” Sykes said in an interview last week with The Associated Press. “The president of the United States and the U.S. attorney general need to step up to the plate and tell this country that we mean business and that this is not just show.”
Holder, citing a rise in white supremacist activity, recently called on Congress to create new hate crimes legislation to stop what he called “violence masquerading as political activism.” He cited separate attacks over a two-week period in which a young soldier in Little Rock, Ark., an abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., and a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington were killed.
Sykes persuaded former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., to introduce the bill in 2005. It passed Congress late last year, but action stemming from the legislation has been lagging, Sykes said.
According to the FBI, there are more than 100 unsolved civil rights killings that occurred before 1969 that are under review. Since 2007, there have been 28 arrests and 22 convictions, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group that tracks hate crimes.
Sykes said he’ll push Holder for a national outreach project that would include town hall meetings and door-to-door canvassing to encourage victims’ families to report information about crimes while suspects are still alive and witnesses still have their memory.