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Honoring a Great Civil Rights Fighter

Civil rights icon Alvin Sykes dons the SGI-USA Humanitarian Award he received on May 3, 2008, for his contributions to the betterment of society.
Civil rights icon Alvin Sykes dons the SGI-USA Humanitarian Award he received on May 3, 2008, for his contributions to the betterment of society. Photo by Alistair Tutton.

The nation paid tribute to SGI-USA member and civil rights icon Alvin Sykes, who passed away on March 19, 2021. He was 64.

Mr. Sykes, a self-taught legal defender, was best known for launching the Emmett Till Justice Campaign in January 2003 with Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, just days before her death. The campaign sought justice for the Black teenager whose 1955 death by a racially motivated brutal beating in Mississippi galvanized the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

Mr. Sykes’ dogged efforts culminated in 2008, when the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was signed into law. The Till Bill authorizes the investigation and prosecution of cold cases related to civil rights violations against African Americans before 1970.

In a March 29 New York Times obituary, Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, spoke of Mr. Sykes’ contribution: “Anyone who worked in civil rights during the last several decades knew Alvin Sykes. He changed the face of American law, and he learned it all in a Kansas City library.”

Mr. Sykes, who did not graduate high school, studied law by frequenting the Kansas City Public Library in Missouri. His passion for justice was shaped by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and by his own experiences as a victim of violent abuse. He went on to actively fight for civil rights in Kansas and Missouri.

He first encountered Nichiren Buddhism at 18 and joined the SGI-USA soon after. In a 2013 World Tribune interview, Mr. Sykes said of his Buddhist practice: “I found that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo gave me the confidence and belief that I could achieve what I set out to achieve. It took away any feelings of limitation” (Aug. 16, 2013, World Tribune, p. 6).

In the same interview, he shared a poignant story from his early 20s, when he met Coretta Scott King. He had asked her, “Mrs. King, is world peace truly possible?” Her response, “If you believe.”

Reflecting on that episode, Mr. Sykes then emphasized: “In terms of being Buddhist in America, we have to believe that we can get more of this population chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Once we believe it, we will be able to reach out to others in a broad way. We’ve got to start believing.”

Mr. Sykes’ memorial service was held on April 1, 2021, in Kansas City, Missouri. SGI-USA Men’s Leader Kevin Moncrief participated in the virtual tribute, imparting this Buddhist perspective: “Birth and death are the constant manifestations of eternal life, continuing through past, present and future. Mr. Alvin Sykes devoted his entire life to the cause of justice for all. Our best way to honor him is to continue his work.”

—Prepared by the World Tribune staff

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