MAY 6, 1983

Alvin Sykes convinced federal prosecutors to prosecute Richard Bledsoe for a hate crime. Credit: Kansas City Public Library

A federal judge sentenced Raymond Bledsoe to life for beating Black jazz saxophonist Steven Harvey to death in a Kansas City park because of his race. 

A Missouri jury had acquitted Bledsoe of murder, and afterward, he reportedly bragged to his girlfriend about killing a “n—–” and getting away with it. 

Family members, Alvin Sykes and the Steve Harvey Justice Campaign convinced federal authorities to pursue the case. At the time, the conviction was reportedly the fourth under the Civil Rights Act of 1968. 

In 2013, federal corrections authorities denied parole to Bledsoe. To date, he remains the longest serving inmate convicted under that Civil Rights Act. Sykes later helped bring both the Justice Department’s reopening of the Emmett Till case and the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. 

Sykes died in 2021, and his New York Times obituary read, “Though he never took a bar exam, Mr. Sykes was a brilliant legal and legislative operator whose admirers included City Council members, politicians and U.S. attorneys general from both parties. … He led a monk’s life in the name of social justice. He rarely held a job, wore second hand clothing and lacked a permanent address for long stretches of time, staying with friends instead and living off donations and, later, speaker fees. He never learned to drive and so walked everywhere, most often to the reference section of the library in Kansas City, Mo, where he did his research, or to a booth at a restaurant that he used as an informal office, his papers surrounded by cups of coffee and stubbed-out cigarettes.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.