On the night of November 4, 1980, Steve Harvey was playing his saxophone in a public park, as he often did to unwind after gigs in Kansas City. While in the bathroom, he was attacked by three white men, who chased Harvey through a nearby baseball field and crushed his skull with a bat, killing him.
The attackers, led by 19-year-old Raymond Bledsoe, believed the park was a hangout for gay men. Bledsoe told friends afterward he had killed a “Black faggot.”
At the time, Alvin Sykes was 24 and managing a funk band in Kansas City. He was friends with Harvey, one of the many talented “songbirds,” as he said, perched in the city’s celebrated music scene. “Steve Harvey was a great musician,” Sykes recalled, “he was going to go far.”
An informant identified Bledsoe and his friends as Harvey’s killers. Two pled guilty to assault charges in exchange for testimony against Bledsoe. Nonetheless, Bledsoe was acquitted by an all-white jury.
The injustice gnawed at Sykes. “They killed one of our songbirds, and for them to get away with it? Nah—that just wasn’t going to go.”
A few years before, Sykes had converted to Nichiren Buddhism, a form of Mahayana Buddhism founded in 13th century Japan. Fellow members of Soka Gakkai, Nichiren’s international lay organization, encouraged Sykes to chant the group’s distinctive mantra—Nam myoho renge kyo—a phrase believed to contain all of the dharma. (It means: “I take refuge in the Lotus of the Wonderful Law.”) The practice, known as daimoku, “took away any feelings of limitation,” Sykes later said. Chanting about the Harvey case gave him the confidence to dig deeper.
And so, Sykes, a high school dropout with no legal training, assigned himself the case. His stepmother had preached the value of reading, so he walked to the Kansas City Public Library and hit the stacks. With Harvey’s widow by his side, he tunneled through law books before finding the nugget he needed: an obscure clause in the 1968 Civil Rights Act that made it illegal to deny someone use of a public property based on race.
At Syke’s urging, the Justice Department charged Bledsoe with violating Harvey’s civil rights. Again, an all-white jury would decide Bledsoe’s fate. This time, the jury found him guilty.
Bledsoe, 56, is now Inmate #02512-045 inside a federal prison in Pennsylvania, serving one of the longest sentences ever meted out for a civil rights violation.
Alvin Sykes, who died on March 19 at age 64, would become one of the country’s savviest and most successful civil rights activists, the architect behind landmark bills to reopen cold cases and a relentless advocate for justice.
Sykes personally convinced a US Senator to drop his opposition to a bill that empowered federal agents to investigate unsolved racial crimes from decades past. He also helped write or pass state laws about jury reform, using DNA to exonerate falsely accused criminals, securing voting rights for public housing residents and penalizing animal cruelty as a felony crime.
Though he often eschewed the spotlight, the arc of Syke’s remarkable life—from the Kansas City Public Library to the halls of Congress—has an almost storybook quality, like a Frank Capra film or a saint’s biography. That includes his conversion to Buddhism, which came by way of Herbie Hancock, the legendary jazz pianist and composer.
For Sykes, Buddhism became the bedrock of his life. Before every big moment, he told friends, he chanted daimoku, which he credited with instilling the conviction that he could change his life and the courage to do so, even against formidable odds.
“In SGI we talk about making the impossible possible,” Hancock told me in a recent interview, using the acronym for Soka Gakkai International. “He lived that every day. He took on these impossible cases, many were from poor Black people who didn’t have money for lawyers or for justice. And he won.”
Turning poison into medicine
Alvin Sykes was born July 21, 1956 to a 14-year-old girl, and raised by Burnetta Page, a family friend. Sykes was told his mother was his sister, and the only time he saw his father, Vernon Evans, Evans was lying in a casket. The confusion left a mark.
“Truth for me had been so evasive and changing,” he said. “That’s why it became so important for me to find out the whole truth throughout life.”
Sykes was a sickly child, but Page mortgaged her home to pay for his epilepsy treatment and extolled the power of books. “Anything worthwhile takes reading,” she said.
Sykes heeded that advice, but ignored his stepmother’s warnings about the couple across the street.
Lured to their house by candy, Sykes was sexually abused. Not knowing to whom or where to turn for help, he returned and confronted his abusers. They attacked him again.
“That’s when I started thinking there needed to be someone between people and law enforcement,” he said.
After more neighborhood trouble, Page sent Sykes to Boys Town, the home in Nebraska for at-risk children founded by the famous Father Flanagan. Sykes hated it, except for the music program. Returning to Kansas City, he didn’t like high school much either, dropping out in the 9th grade.
But Sykes didn’t stop studying. To hide his truancy, he visited the public library, letting curiosity guide his curriculum.
“There was a time when somebody like me wouldn’t have been allowed inside a library – or as a Black man, permitted to read at all,” Sykes recalled. “But I was able to revolve much of my life around the library. I sought and got my education there.”
Sykes also chased his love of music through the city’s jazz clubs, where he was introduced to Hancock. When they met, in the early 1970s, the jazz pianist was a star, after stints in Miles Davis’ band and scoring mainstream hits with the funktastic Head Hunters.
Most of the Head Hunters practiced Buddhism, Hancock recalled. “We were hardcore members back then, and we always challenged ourselves to do shakubuku,” Soka Gakkai’s phrase for sharing the dharma.
Hancock said his initial conversations with Sykes continued for the musician’s whole weeklong engagement in Kansas City. Back on the road, he would call to check if his protege had chanted, and the two became close. Sykes considered Hancock his spiritual mentor and best friend.
In Soka Gakkai, Sykes found one of America’s most diverse and socially engaged Buddhist movements. He also found values to guide the rest of his life: honoring the intrinsic dignity of each person, a strong belief in the power of dialogue and an insistence that, with practice, even poison can be alchemized into medicine.
Ray Bosch, an attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency in Kansas City, recalls meeting Sykes at Soka Gakkai events in the early 1980s.
Before long, Sykes was asking for legal advice. One of the first cases he asked about was Steve Harvey’s.
The Harvey victory sent Sykes’ life into new and unexpected directions. Victims of injustice clamored for meetings with the self-taught savant. He spent nearly four decades traveling across the country, sleeping on couches, meeting with victims’ families and lawyers, working late nights with papers spread across greasy McDonald’s tables, scouring court records and law books for an instrument to pry open cold cases.
From time to time, Sykes would think about the music career he’d put on hold and get an itch to return.
“I’ve always been trying to not be doing what I’ve been doing all these years,” Sykes said at an event in 2015, drawing laughter. “I had other goals in life.”
But there was always someone who needed help.
“There came a time in his forties when he got bombarded by so many people in need,” Bosch said. “He couldn’t turn his back on them.”
Before long, Sykes got hooked by the ultimate cold case.
People’s last resort
Emmett Till was maimed and murdered in 1955 by white men in Mississippi who never served a day for their crimes. Till had supposedly whistled at one of the men’s wife, who later admitted making it all up.
Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother, pressed prosecutors for decades to reopen her son’s murder case, without success.
In 2002, Sykes showed up at Till-Mobley’s door and told her it was possible to turn “the poison of Till’s murder into the medicine of justice for other victims.” He soon gained her trust and took on her cause. Just days later, Till-Mobley died.
“At the end of her life she was happy because of Alvin,” Hancock said. “He took the torch. He was people’s last resort and he came through.”
In 2005, the Justice Department reopened the Till case. A two-year investigation yielded some new evidence, but a grand jury declined to indict anyone on criminal charges.
Despite the disappointment, Sykes used the momentum behind the Emmett Till case to push for a bill that would create new departments to investigate cold cases associated with violent civil rights violations.
Introduced by the late Georgia congressman John Lewis in 2007, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act sailed through the House by a vote of 422-2. Everyone expected the Senate to quickly follow suit. Then the bill ran into the Senate’s infamous Dr. No.
Chanting for Dr. No
The “Till Bill” had been put on hold by the late Senator Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican who had appointed himself the arbiter of how Congress spends our money. By placing “holds” on bills, “Dr. No,” as Coburn’s Senate colleagues called him, could stop legislation in its tracks.
Democrats were outraged and denounced Coburn to the media. Both parties seemed less interested in working together than exploiting the moral high ground.
Sykes took it upon himself to open a dialogue with Coburn, starting by calling Coburn’s staff and politely but persistently advocating for the bill. The senator did not oppose the merits of the bill, he explained, according to Sykes, just the method of paying for it.
Sensing an opening, Sykes flew to Washington to meet with Coburn. But first, he chanted Nam–myoho–renge–kyo for the Senator. “He wanted to connect with his heart,” said Bosch.
“Those who supported the bill started beating him up in the press, but I saw it as a test in terms of faith. I chanted a lot about this, studied SGI President Ikeda’s encouragement and stepped up my participation in SGI-USA activities,” Sykes told World Tribune, the organization’s newspaper. “Then it hit me: Why don’t you reach out to the senator? When I did that, I realized that neither side had engaged in dialogue. He became receptive and eventually dropped his hold on the bill. When he did so, he spent five minutes on the Senate floor praising my heart, integrity and determination. I was floored. This was my actual proof of faith.”
After meeting with Sykes, Coburn not only dropped his opposition to the bill, he also delivered a floor speech in the Senate extolling the civil rights activist’s stamina, integrity, forthrightness and determination.
“He has held true to his beliefs and his commitment to the mother of Emmett Till,” Coburn said on the Senate floor, “and because of that, we are going to see this bill come to fruition.”
For Sykes, convincing Coburn was more than a political win.
“This was very much a spiritual victory for me,” he said. “Because in Buddhism we believe very much in the power of dialogue.”
The man at McDonald’s
In 2019, Sykes was rushing to catch a train to Chicago for an event with Emmett Till’s family, when he fell and hit his head. The injury paralyzed Sykes from the chest down, said friends. He spent the rest of his life in an assisted care facility.
Bosch said Sykes was no monk. He loved music and barbeque, suffered heartbreak and wanted to start a family.
But he also sacrificed for his cause. He never learned to drive a car, dressed in second-hand clothes and slept on couches. He never sought fame, and to this day many don’t know about his influence or accomplishments.
In 2013, the Kansas City Public Library named Sykes its first scholar in residence. Sykes called it the graduation ceremony he never had. In his speech, he challenged the audience to see beyond their surface prejudices.
“I can remember the times when I sat inside a McDonald’s restaurant, hungry but absorbed in my work, papers spread around me and passersby giving me that look,” he said in 2013, when the Kansas City Public Library named him its scholar in residence. “To those who applaud me now, I ask: Don’t turn up your nose at the next guy like me you see at McDonald’s—too busy, or maybe too poor to eat. You don’t know what he’s working on. It might wind up on the President’s desk.”