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Public Statements

Emmitt Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


EMMETT TILL UNSOLVED CIVIL RIGHTS CRIME ACT -- (Senate - August 01, 2008)

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record an article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which profiles Mr. Alvin Sykes. Mr. Sykes and I have worked closely together to reach a compromise on this bill, and I would like the story of his life and his work on this legislation to be part of the record.

I would also ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a message from Mr. Sykes to me, expressing support for the compromise.

Finally, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record three letters. The first is to the bill's sponsor, Senator Chris Dodd, explaining my objection to the legislation. The letter is dated June 25, 2007. The second is a subsequent letter to Senator Dodd, seeking a UC agreement for floor time on the bill, dated June 19, 2008. The third is a similar letter to Senator Reid, sent the same day.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:
[From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jun. 3, 2007]
Civil Rights-Era Murder Cases: ``Another Day for Justice''--Self-Taught Legal Expert Alvin Sykes Is on a Quest To Get Long-Unpursued Suspects Into Court Before It's Too Late
(By Drew Jubera)

JACKSON, MISS.--A fourth-floor courtroom filled here last week much the way Southern courtrooms now fill every few years for a civil rights-era murder case.

The 71-year-old defendant, James Seale, requested headphones as he sat with his lawyers during jury selection so he could hear the proceedings.

The former crop duster and reputed Klansman is charged with kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with the May 2, 1964, abduction and killings of two black teenagers. The bodies of Henry Dee and Charles Moore were found in the Mississippi River, tied to a Jeep engine block.

Seale has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.

Also inside the downtown courthouse: aging relatives of the murdered boys, including Thomas Moore, 63, a Vietnam veteran who worked almost a decade to get his brother's moldering case reopened.

Before entering this historic scene and sitting in a rear pew, Alvin Sykes tugged at his blue-jean jacket, stroked his scraggly goatee and exhaled.

``Another day for justice,'' said Sykes, an improbable presence at yet another improbable decades-old case.

Sykes, a high school dropout and practicing Buddhist who once lived in a homeless shelter and learned the law reading books in public libraries, has become both a catalyst and an inspiration during the 11th-hour rush to reopen these old murder cases before the killers die off.

Since 1989, authorities in Mississippi and six other states have re-examined 29 civil rights-era murders, with 28 resulting arrests and 22 convictions.

The FBI has uncovered 51 more killings, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of 127 race-related killings between 1954 and 1968.

It's in this atmosphere that Sykes has brokered meetings with people as various as U.S. senators, district attorneys and victims' relatives to seek long-delayed justice.

His behind-the-scenes maneuvering was key to the FBI's reinvestigation of the infamous 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teen brutally killed after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Money, Miss. (Earlier this year, a Mississippi grand jury did not return an indictment in the case.)

Sykes also generated the idea for legislation now before Congress that grew out of the reopening of that now-52-year-old slaying. Commonly known as the Till Bill, and sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), it would fund a separate unit in the Justice Department devoted to investigating civil rights-era crimes.

``He's a warrior,'' said Moore of the mild-mannered Sykes, whom he credits with inspiring him while he sought justice for his brother. ``Every now and then a person comes along who you say, `Where'd this guy come from?' Alvin's one of those guys. He might not have this degree or that background, but he has a lot of dedication and inner strength.''

Added Margaret Burnham, a Northeastern University law professor who recently invited Sykes to speak at a conference in Boston about civil rights-era cases, co-sponsored by Harvard University, ``He's a completely self-taught man who's incredibly skilled at knowing what buttons to push, when to push them and what cases the government might respond to. He's better at it than hundreds of people I've met in my long life as a civil rights lawyer.

``He brings a passion and insight to the work that would be extraordinary for anybody--a university-trained academic or lawyer--but it's particularly extraordinary given his personal history.''

Sykes was born to a 14-year-old at a home for unwed mothers, then taken in by a single 48-year-old friend of the family in Kansas City, Mo. He was sickly, in and out of hospitals with epilepsy, and says around age 11 he was sexually abused by a couple that lived across the street.

His formal education was spotty--he spent three years at Boys Town, the facility for at-risk kids in Omaha--then left school for good at 16.

He lived briefly with his biological mother--he thought for years she was a cousin--but says she was an alcoholic and rarely employed. He ran into her years later when he was homeless. She lived at the same shelter.

But Sykes calls leaving school the start of his education. Working nights managing a band, he spent his days holed up in a library. ``Education was important to me--that's the reason I left school,'' he said. ``The administration was more concerned with students getting a piece of paper than an education. So I started teaching myself.''

He also sat in on trials, watching legal strategies, researching what he didn't understand. He became involved in a federal desegregation case with the Kansas City public schools and befriended a Justice Department official. ``I learned about cases and the system and started applying it to real matters,'' he said.

Sykes' work as a victims' advocate became locally renowned after a string of Kansas City musicians were murdered in the late '70s and early '80s. When a white defendant was acquitted of beating a prominent black musician to death, Sykes went back to the library with the victim's wife. ``It was like in the movies,'' he recalled. ``We just kept opening books. Then 10 minutes before closing time, I found it.''

Sykes unearthed an obscure federal statute that allowed the defendant to be prosecuted on a civil rights violation. He sent everything he found to Justice Department lawyer Richard Roberts, now a federal judge in Washington, who got an indictment. The defendant was convicted and received a life sentence.

``His seriousness of purpose was impressive,'' Roberts said. ``It made answering his phone calls much more attractive.''

Sykes had worked for or founded a variety of local victims' rights groups, rarely living on more than $10,000 a year, when in 2003 he read a story about Till's mother wanting her son's case reopened. Two documentarians also suggested there were living suspects beyond the two men, now dead, who were acquitted of the 14-year-old's murder but later bragged about it in an article.

Sykes and Donald Burger, a retired Justice Department official who befriended Sykes during the school desegregation case, met with Mamie Till-Mobley in Chicago and talked about pursuing the case. Till-Mobley died days later, after co-founding, with Sykes and others, the Emmett Till Justice Campaign.

``Alvin was the aggressor,'' said Wheeler Parker, 68, who traveled with Till, his cousin, from Chicago to Mississippi in 1955. ``Don had more contacts and knowledge, but Alvin had the aggressiveness and nerve to pursue it. The fire's in his belly.''

Sykes arranged a meeting in Oxford, Miss., with a U.S. attorney, the district attorney who would prosecute the case, a Till relative and documentarian Keith Beauchamp. The FBI soon agreed to investigate the case for local authorities.

``He was a very adept facilitator,'' recalled Jim Greenlee, the U.S. attorney. ``Without his efforts, the chances for the investigation being reopened would have been much less. I call him a catalyst.''

During the Till investigation, Sykes became aware of dozens of other cold cases from that era. He couldn't create a justice campaign for each one, so he envisioned a unit within the Justice Department with the money, resources and expertise to investigate them all. He sold the idea to Missouri's conservative Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who introduced the so-called Till Bill in 2005.

Talent, who credits Sykes with the initial idea, lost re-election last year, and the original bill stalled. But the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act has been reintroduced by Reps. Lewis and Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) in the House and Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). It provides $11.5 million annually to look into the era's unsolved murders, and political observers say its chances now look good. Many give Sykes credit.

``He has played the role of public advocate on Capitol Hill to remind legislators who may not have experienced the tragedy of segregation and racial discrimination that unsolved crimes against African-Americans have left an intolerable stain on our democracy,'' said Brenda Jones, spokeswoman for Lewis. ``He has helped remind many members of Congress that we must take steps to right these wrongs.''

Leaving the Jackson courthouse during a break in the Seale trial, which continues with jury selection this week, Sykes shook his head.

``I was sitting there thinking, `When I was 16, it was just like this.' I was sitting in a courtroom, getting an education.''

Sykes sometimes wishes he could return to the music business, make a better living, have a better life. Living off donations, some speaking fees and a book Till's mother wrote that he sometimes sells out of a bag, he doesn't even own a car. Friends drove him to Jackson.

But he says he can't leave the cause yet. There are still too many low-profile cases he worries will stay lost. Even the Till case languished five decades without a reinvestigation.

``The thing that gets me [maddest] in terms of the Till case,'' he said, ``is the realization that [the two killers who were acquitted on murder charges] could have been tried for kidnapping before they died.

``I have a chip on my shoulder about all the people more knowledgeable than me who could have pursued that case. On my more benevolent days, I say they just didn't know the law enough. On my most cynical days, I say it was just too much work.''

SYKES' SUCCESSES

Sykes' behind-the-scenes maneuvering was key to the FBI's reinvestigation of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

Sykes generated the idea for legislation that would create a separate unit in the Justice Department devoted to civil rights-era crimes.

DECADES-OLD CRIMES

Since 1989, officials in Mississippi and other states have taken another look:

29: Number of murders re-examined

28: Number of arrests made

22: Number of guilty verdicts

--

July 31, 2008.

DEAR SENATOR COBURN: First allow me to extend our appreciation and admiration for you and your staff for assistance and communication with us concerning S. 535, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. While we still believe that the hold that you placed on our bill was not the good way to effect the institutional change in the manner that the United States Senate does business, we do appreciate the open lines of communication and respect that your staff, in particular Brooke Bacak and Tim Tardibono, have shown in negotiating with us on proposed language and conditions that would address your concern and minimize the loss we have suffered from going this route. Therefore our Board of Directors has voted to endorse a unanimous consent agreement that would include the latest draft language that rectifies the concerns with the controversy over the Attorney having authority to reprogram funds from one congressionally directed fund to another by eliminating all reference to reprogramming and replacing with prioritizing spending request if Congress does not fully fund the Till Bill. Furthermore we support you having the right to submit this language as an amendment in the cloture vote process as long as the floor debate time is limited and that you would not replace your hold on our bill if your amendment fails. Nothing in this request is meant to criticize the Senate Leadership on the enormous work that they have done to craft and advocate for the passage of this bill, especially the good work of Patrick Grant in Senator Dodd's office and Darrell Thompson in Senate Majority leader Harry Reid's office who has kept hope alive on this historic bill. However we firmly believe that truth and justice can be best achieved by opening and maintaining effective lines of communication and searching for a win-win justice seeking solution. We further believe that since you started this by placing your hold on our bill, you should be the one to finish it. Therefore the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, Inc. requests that you make an overture to the Democratic Leadership and the sponsors of the Till Bill by introducing the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, as proposed amended, under the Unanimous Concent Agreement outlined above tonight in the interest of time, truth and justice.

Sincerely, in the pursuit of justice, I am,
Alvin Sykes,

President,
Emmett Till Justice Campaign, Inc.

--

U.S. SENATE,

Washington, DC, June 25, 2007.
Senator CHRISTOPHER J. DODD,
Russell Senate Office Building,
Washington, DC.

DEAR CHRIS: As you know, I have not agreed to a unanimous consent request for the Senate to approve S. 535/H.R. 923, not because I disagree with the well intended motives of the legislation, but because it violates the principles I use to evaluate every piece of legislation. I sent you and the other members of the Senate a copy of these principles in February.

Among these principles are: If a bill creates or authorizes a new federal program or activity, it must not duplicate an existing program or activity; and if a bill authorizes new spending, it must be offset by reductions in real spending elsewhere.

Your bill both creates a new government program that duplicates an existing program and authorizes new government spending without offsetting the costs.

The bill authorizes $115 million over 10 years to investigate murders committed before 1970 that have gone unpunished. Perhaps you are unaware, but the Department of Justice initiated an effort over a year ago to do just this.

In February 2006, a full year before you introduced your bill, the U.S. Attorney General and the FBI director announced a partnership with the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Urban League to investigate unsolved crimes from the civil rights era. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has pledged that ``The Justice Department is committed to investigating and prosecuting civil-rights era homicides for as long as it takes and as far as the law allows--because there is no statute of limitations on human dignity and justice.''

According to the FBI, ``in February 2006, the FBI enacted an initiative to identify hate crimes that occurred prior to December 1969, and resulted in death.'' The Bureau's 56 field offices have been directed to re-examine their unsolved civil rights cases and determine which ones could still be viable for prosecution. The FBI has partnered with a number of state and local authorities, civic organizations, and community leaders to reexamine old files. Since the initiative began, the FBI has received nearly 100 such referrals. The FBI is continuing to assess each referral for its investigative and legal viability and, given the updated investigative and forensic tools, move forward in investigating these cases.

The Department of Justice is not lacking resources either. At the end of Fiscal Year 2006, the Department had $2.5 billion in unobligated balances, which is unspent money. The Department is expected to have $1.6 billion in unobligated balances at the end of Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008.

Because the FBI is already working on this issue and the Justice Department has billions of unspent dollars, I am unsure why creating new government programs and authorizing more than $100 million in new spending is necessary.

If authorizing more spending for this ongoing effort, however, is necessary, we could pay for it with unspent Department funds or with offsets from existing lower priority spending, as I have proposed doing.

I realize that many members of the Senate do not care about our national debt which is why it is nearly $9 trillion. Most Senators, including you, voted to kill a Sense of Senate resolution stating that Congress has a moral obligation to offset the cost of new Government programs and initiatives. You even voted to fund the infamous ``Bridges to Nowhere'' in Alaska which cost half a billion dollars!

So while you may not concern yourself with our national debt or the impact of adding to it, I do. That it why I was very disappointed that you issued a press statement last week claiming that I am ``delaying this bill's passage under false pretense.''

If you really care about this issue and the economic future of our nation, I would hope that you would actually discuss the matter directly with me instead of holding press conferences and issuing press releases. In fact, my office did make an offer to your staff to find a way to pay for this bill, which was rejected.

If you have any interest in passing this bill in a fiscally responsible manner, please contact me. In the meantime, you can rest assured that the Attorney General and the FBI are already conducting the investigations that your bill seeks to address.

Sincerely,

Tom A. Coburn, M.D.,
U.S. Senator.

--

U.S. SENATE,

Washington, DC, June 19, 2008.
Senator Christopher J. Dodd,
Russell Senate Office Building,
Washington, DC.

Dear Senator Dodd: As you are aware, I am ready to enter into a unanimous consent agreement on S. 535, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. This weekend marks the anniversary of the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, and I believe it is an opportune time for the Senate to give this bill the vote it deserves. To that end, I have offered four amendments for your consideration. Unfortunately, until you agree to allow me to offer these amendments on the floor, the Senate is prevented from moving to the bill. My hope is that we can resolve this issue soon, so that the Senate may consider S. 535 immediately.

I have always supported the admirable goal of this legislation: namely, to ensure that perpetrators of heinous civil rights cold case crimes are finally brought to justice. I was pleased to learn of the Government's efforts to identify and prosecute these crimes, initiated a full year before your bill was introduced. It remains my desire to see these efforts continue, but I insist that they be done in a fiscally responsible manner.

My concerns with this bill have always involved its cost, and I have worked consistently to identify possible offsets. I made known these concerns as early as August 2006, when the measure was first considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee. At that time, the bill's sponsor worked with me to find an agreeable offset; however, our proposals were ultimately rejected by an unnamed Senator. In June 2007, I had another opportunity to explain my concerns when the bill again came before the Committee. Additionally, more than three months before I publicly objected to your request for unanimous consent to consider the bill on the floor, I sent you a letter explaining in detail my position on the bill. Finally, in October 2007, I offered an amendment to provide $1.68 million to investigate and prosecute unsolved civil rights crimes by transferring funds from other wasteful programs. That amendment was defeated after a majority of the Senate, including 11 of the bill's sponsors, voted to table it.

Even if I had not been so vocal about this bill in the 109th Congress, the letter I sent to you and all of my Senate colleagues in February 2007 should have left no doubt about my position this year. That letter outlined the principles I use to evaluate legislation, which include: If a bill creates or authorizes a new federal program or activity, it must not duplicate an existing program or activity; and if a bill authorizes new spending it must be offset by reductions in real spending elsewhere.

Because S. 535 both creates a new, duplicative government program and authorizes new government spending without offsetting the costs, you had ample notice--long before you hotlined the bill--that I would object.

Because of the knowledge you had about negotiations that occurred in the previous Congress, my staff's earlier failed efforts to negotiate an offset with your staff, and my own public statements, there has been a consistent understanding of my willingness to allow the full Senate to consider S. 535. My only desire is to be permitted to offer amendments to the bill. I regret that my position has been unfairly--and incorrectly--characterized as an insurmountable obstacle to final passage.

Although my office has not been contacted by yours (or any other bill sponsors) since before the press conference you held to question my intentions on this bill, I have been in frequent contact with the Emmett Till Justice Campaign. That Campaign is undoubtedly the bill's greatest supporter, and the persistent efforts of President Alvin Sykes have outdone any member of the Senate, both in character and enthusiasm. It has been my privilege to work directly with Mr. Sykes, and it is to his credit that so much progress has been made these past few months. We could all stand to learn from his example.

In short, the purpose of this letter is to secure your commitment to a UC agreement allowing me to offer four amendments to S. 535 during floor debate. If you will do so, I am prepared to take up the bill immediately. Especially given the timeliness of this weekend's memorials commemorating the 44th anniversary of the deaths of three civil rights martyrs, I see no reason for further delay.

Sincerely,

Tom A. Coburn, M.D.,
U.S. Senator.

--

U.S. SENATE,

Washington, DC, June 19, 2008.
Senator Harry Reid,
Hart Senate Office Building,
Washington, DC.

DEAR SENATOR REID: The purpose of this letter is to reiterate my willingness to enter into a unanimous consent agreement allowing floor consideration of S. 535, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. I understand that your staff, along with that of the bill's sponsor, is still considering the four amendments I have proposed as a condition of my consent. My hope is that we can resolve this issue soon, so that the Senate may consider S. 535 immediately.

I have been disappointed in the progress of this bill. Although I made known my specific concerns over the bill's cost as early as August 2006, my intentions have repeatedly been questioned both by members of the media and the Senate. The attacks have been disingenuous, as I have always supported the admirable goal of this legislation: namely, to ensure that perpetrators of heinous civil rights cold case crimes are finally brought to justice. Consistent with the position I have taken toward all legislation authorizing new spending in the 110th Congress, I exercised my right to withhold consent on S. 535.

I have, however, always made known my willingness to work with bill sponsors on identifying needed offsets. Because they have been unwilling to accept my offers and have shown no willingness to otherwise negotiate, the Senate must now consider the bill on the floor. In order for this to happen, we must reach an agreement as to time and amendments. I have put forth my request for consent to offer four amendments and continue to await a response.

Although my office has not been contacted since last year by any Senator seeking to move this bill, I have been in frequent contact with the Emmett Till Justice Campaign. That Campaign is undoubtedly the bill's greatest supporter, and the persistent efforts of President Alvin Sykes have outdone any member of the Senate, both in character and enthusiasm. It has been my privilege to work directly with Mr. Sykes, and it is to his credit that so much progress has been made these past few months. We could all stand to learn from his example.

This weekend marks the 44th anniversary of the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. The occasion makes consideration of this bill especially timely, and I want to make clear that I support prompt consideration. Please give me a response on my request to offer four amendments so that the Senate is able to take up S. 535 as soon as possible.

Thanks,

Tom A. Coburn, M.D.,
U.S. Senator.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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