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In late 2002, Alvin Sykes, an SGI-USA member and civil rights activist, sought out Mamie Till-Mobley to talk to her about her son. Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, had been brutally beaten and murdered on Aug. 28, 1955, while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, USA. His offense: allegedly whistling at a white woman.
While Mr. Till’s murder became one of the events that energized the budding American Civil Rights Movement, his killers were acquitted of the crime. Although they later admitted their guilt, they remained free.
In January 2003, Mr. Sykes and Ms. Till-Mobley launched the Emmett Till Justice Campaign. Ms. Till-Mobley died two days later.
“Toward the end of her life, what she wanted most was that her son’s death not be in vain,” said Mr. Sykes, who served as president of the organization they co-founded. “She was not looking for resolution just for her son, but for all these cases, all these injustices.”
related article New Commitment to Society by Marianne Acker Marianne Acker practices Buddhism with SGI-Germany (SGI-Deutschland). As part of her commitment to social work, she leads Buddhist seminars in JVA III prisons at the request of inmates. Although posthumously, Ms. Till-Mobley has received just that. On Oct. 7, U.S. President Bush signed into law the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, referred to as the Till Bill. The law will fund investigations of unsolved homicides from 1970 and earlier.
Mr. Sykes helped craft the legislation, which creates two positions—one in the FBI and the other in the U.S. Justice Department—to investigate these unsolved cases. The bill also sets aside up to $135 million over 10 years for investigations.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who had put the legislation on hold for more than a year, praised Mr. Sykes on the Senate floor after the bill’s passing. “I want to tell you something about America with this bill, and it has to do with Alvin Sykes.... He held true to his belief and true to his commitment to Emmett Till’s mother. And because of that, we’re going to see this bill come into fruition. I think that speaks so well about our country that here one person has truly made a difference,” Mr. Coburn said.
Mr. Sykes’ passion for justice was shaped by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and by his own experiences as a victim of violent abuse. In his teen years, Mr. Sykes educated himself about law by reading and studying at the public library, and he became active in the struggle for civil rights in Kansas and Missouri.
Mr. Sykes’ life changed at 18, when he encountered Nichiren Buddhism at a Herbie Hancock concert. He and a friend went backstage to try to meet the jazz legend, when he heard a strange sound emanating from his dressing room. Mr. Hancock shared with Mr. Sykes the life-affirming philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism that includes chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Mr. Sykes soon became an SGI-USA member. He says his practice and study of Buddhism strengthened his determination to fight for justice and deepened his belief in the power of dialogue to break down walls and help people work together to achieve results that might have seemed impossible.
In his work on the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, Mr. Sykes eventually persuaded the federal assistant attorney general to get the FBI to launch a massive investigation into the Emmett Till case in partnership with the state prosecutor. The FBI’s 8,000-page report, released in 2006, was turned over to the district attorney of Mississippi for review. The new investigation resulted in no charges.
The promise Mr. Sykes made to Till’s mother, however, was fulfilled in an even broader sense than they had at first envisioned through the Till Bill.
related article Discovering the Best Possible Family by Donna Snyder Donna Snyder recounts how her Buddhist practice enabled her overcome a history of family estrangements and create a happy home of her own. In 2007, U.S. Representative John Lewis and others introduced the Till Bill in the House, where it passed 422-2. The bill was set to pass in the Senate, but Senator Coburn placed the bill on hold. Mr. Sykes flew to Washington, D.C., to hear the senator’s side and to share his own. Shortly after, the two men began to work together on the bill. On Sept. 23, the Till Bill passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. Two weeks after that, President Bush signed the bill into law. Mr. Sykes was honored by the executive committee of the Kansas City branch of the NAACP. On Oct. 18, he received the Outstanding Recognition Award in honor of his many years of community work and advocacy for civil rights.
Through his practice of Nichiren Buddhism, Mr. Sykes has come to define success as “finding the truth and securing justice” by prosecuting criminals who thought they had gotten away with their crimes and, equally important, exonerating those who were falsely accused. Mr. Sykes likens his lifelong passion for truth and justice to a coal in the rough, which has been transformed into a diamond through his Buddhist practice. “I now believe I have a worldwide mission to contribute to world peace in a significant way,” he said, “and to polish myself and grow more so that people can see the power...in my life and believe anything is possible.”
[Adapted from an article by Julia Riley in the November 14, 2008, issue of the World Tribune, SGI-USA; photo courtesy of Alstair Tutton]
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