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The work of the stylish young filmmaker from New York leaves the Gem's audience shaken.
The man who really deserves the credit, though, is pacing the shadows at the edge of the theater, dressed in a gray suit that looks half a size too big. He spends a few quick minutes sharing the podium with Beauchamp but lets the filmmaker have most of the attention. If there's to be justice for Emmett Till and countless other murder victims from the civil rights era that may be because of the much more quiet work of a Kansas City man who never graduated from high school.
Alvin Sykes has a face that suggests his 49 years have been rough. He has no car, no cell phone. He won't say where he lives. His base of operations is the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, a community education center at 55th Street and Cleveland, but he keeps "satellite offices" all over the country public libraries where patrons are allotted 15- or 45-minute blocks of computer time. He uses the time to send two-finger-typed e-mails to senators, prosecutors and officials in the U.S. Department of Justice. Sometimes the computer cuts him off midsentence, so he has to wait his next turn and recompose his message.
He spent the first three months of this year waiting on a phone call from Mississippi 4th Judicial District Attorney Joyce Chiles. Last week, the FBI turned over to Chiles the results of its two-year inquiry. Now it's up to her to decide whether there will be any new charges in the Till case.
J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant are long dead, but Carolyn Bryant is still alive. And for 50 years, there's been speculation that several other people took part in the lynching. Some of the accomplices may have been black neighbors who perhaps feared they'd be next if they didn't help.
Sykes went on the crusade to get a new investigation in the Till case after a December 2002 article in the Kansas City Call noted that Mamie Till-Mobley was trying to get her son's murder case reopened.
Sykes had some experience bringing killers to justice after they'd been acquitted.
"I called Mrs. Mobley and Wheeler Parker," Sykes tells the Pitch. On January 4, 2003, he traveled to Chicago to meet with Till-Mobley. They decided to start the Emmett Till Justice Campaign. Mamie Till-Mobley would be president of the organization.
Two days later, she died.
Watching Beauchamp's film, it's clear that Mamie Till-Mobley's act of defiance was equal to the one committed by Rosa Parks. But her name isn't nearly so well known. "Even now, it's still not a popular story. It doesn't make people look good," Wheeler Parker tells the Pitch. "When I go to speak at schools, it brings back the repercussions, the atmosphere and the attitude that people really wish that kind of thing would go away and people would not talk about it."
But Sykes believed that Till-Mobley had passed her torch to him.
So he called the Department of Justice. Opening Till's case wasn't a matter of evidence, Sykes knew, but rather a matter of convincing the feds that they had jurisdiction to investigate a small-town Mississippi murder all these years later. So, as he has done repeatedly over the past 30 years, he went to the library and dug into law books.