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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Sykes: it’s not too late for truth

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, Ala., in the late 1980s, created a memorial to 40 civil rights martyrs. According to Alabama newspaper The Gadsden Times, researchers found over 80 victims who could not be included because of insufficient knowledge about the circumstances of their deaths. Civil rights advocate Alvin Sykes has urged Congress to pass the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Bill. The bill gives $11.5 million each year to open and sustain a new office in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) specifically to investigate cases in which justice was never served. Sykes told The Gadsden Times that part of the money would be used to encourage people who have spent years scared into silence to come forward.

“We have absolutely no idea how many of them are out there,” Sykes said.

The U.S. Senate approved the bill in Sept. 2005, deciding unanimously to add it as an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, and Appropriations Bill. Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) sponsored the bill.

Jeremy Velardez, a Guilford senior, said he doesn’t know the intricacies of the bill but would call into question the genuineness of the Senate’s desire to pass the bill.

“(Coming) from the U.S. government that isn’t a lot of money, in light of the country’s couple-trillion dollar budget,” said Verlardez.

“We want the murderers and their accomplices who are still living to know there’s an entire section of the Department of Justice that is going after them,” Talent said in a Senate press release. “We need to unearth the truth and do justice because there cannot be healing without the truth.”

Raymond Bledsoe beat saxophonist Steve Harvey to death with a baseball bat in 1980. When an all-white jury acquitted Bledsoe, The Pitch reports that he bragged he’d gotten away with murder.

Sykes and Harvey’s widow worked to convince U.S. prosecutors to take on the case. Bledsoe now serves a life sentence at a federal penitentiary in Colorado.

However, the most notable case on which Sykes has worked is the infamous Emmett Till case. His work there began in Dec. 2002 when he read an article in the Kansas City Call, which noted that Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, wanted a new investigation. The two founded the Emmett Till Justice Campaign (a week before Till-Mobley’s death), which receives half its proceeds from the sale of Till-Mobley’s book “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.”

Sykes found a 1976 opinion by Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia that helped convince DOJ to reopen the case.

“Scalia concluded that even when violators couldn’t be prosecuted for their alleged crimes . the public interest was still served by efforts to detect whether those crimes had occurred,” reported The Pitch. “Further, Scalia wrote, sometimes the Department of Justice needs to investigate its own investigations.”

In May 2004 DOJ announced the opening of a new, full investigation of the Till case.

Dunn Lampton, U.S. attorney in Jackson, Miss., told The Times the importance of Sykes’ work.

“You don’t come into an office and start digging through all the old files to find something to do,” Lampton said. “It’s only when someone brings that to your attention.”

Some argue that reopening investigations of civil rights-era murder cases would do little more than reopen old wounds. Till’s cousin Simeon Wright told The Pitch his problem with this claim.

“(I would say to them) you must not have been wounded,” Wright said. “I was wounded. If I can stand it, you can.”

“There were really two crimes involved in each of these cases,” Talent said. “One of them is the murders that happened, and the second is the failure of the local and federal authorities to investigate.”

Even before Sykes met with the support of Talent and Dodd, he didn’t let obstacles or party lines discourage him.

“Whoever’s sitting in that seat is who I work with,” Sykes told The Pitch. “I can’t see letting four years go by because the wrong administration is in power.

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