KANSAS CITY — 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 re-investigate 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 with Holder had been set for Tuesday, but the two sides are rescheduling because Holder will be 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 a statement from 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 the FBI should reach out to people instead of waiting for them to come forward, noting that many witnesses likely have information but are either scared to come forward or resigned that nothing can be done.
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.
"We want to make sure that they are brought before the bar of justice or they die in fear of being next," he said.
Sykes is the chairman of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign and lives mostly off donations. He hopes to raise enough money to bring about a dozen other people to Washington with him, including relatives of victims of civil rights-era killings. Two of them are relatives of Till.
The FBI has worked diligently to probe decades-old hate crimes, but it's important not to give false hopes to victims' families, said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"The cases that are brought will have to serve as proxies or representatives as justice for all," he said. "We will have to be satisfied with that, that's just the reality of it."
Cohen predicted the vast majority of cases won't reach trial because of statutes of limitations, jurisdictional issues and the difficulties of investigating claims that went unreported because they may have involved police.
But Sykes is hoping his meeting with Holder produces the "largest criminal manhunt in America."
"It will be a greater victory over violence that will occur in this country because of this effort," he said. "And as people see other family members coming forth and getting some resemblance of justice, that helps encourage to bring other people forward."