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Local activist and others take a new look at the Emmett Till case

KCK man persistently works on advancing civil rights hate-crimes enforcement

by Mary Rupert

The Rev. Wheeler Parker, in the Kansas City area recently for a church conference, was surprised when he heard on the news that an accuser of Emmett Till had changed her story.

Parker was a cousin of Emmett Till who went on the train with him from Chicago to Mississippi in 1955 to visit relatives. While at a store in Mississippi, Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman. The news that the woman recanted her statement that Till grabbed her came out earlier this year.

Till, 14 years old at the time, was the victim of a lynching, brutally kidnapped and murdered. The Emmett Till death is considered to be one of the incidents that launched the civil rights movement in America. Parker was a teenager with Emmett at the time the woman originally told authorities that she had been assaulted, and some are wondering if the decades-old case now can be solved.

“Of course, it was good news for me to hear,” Parker said in an interview during his visit to Kansas City. “Now people can see Emmett Till in a different light than 60 years ago.”

For 60 years, some people thought that Emmett “got what he deserved,” but now it turns out that the woman lied, he added.

“Now America knows the truth – he did nothing to assault her,” Parker said. “So we’re glad to get that closure.”

Maybe, he added, if they can get that information from her, the authorities can get more information on the case from her. Most of those sorts of cases are never solved, and some people in the past have got away with crimes, he said. He and some others in the case support immunity for the woman in exchange for her information.

The woman in the case is now in her 80s, and the others involved in the Till case are senior citizens, as well.

A minister in the Pentecostal Church of God, Parker said people are called to forgive. However, he added that “we can’t afford to forget.”

Besides sparking the civil rights movement, the Till case greatly affected all the individuals involved. Till’s mother went back to school, got her master’s degree and dedicated her life to doing good because of what happened to her son, he said.

“It changed me, I became a minister,” Parker said. He dedicated his life to doing good, “because you can never forget.”

Parker called for more outreach on civil rights issues on the part of the clergy. “We’ve got to have some outreach among pastors about what’s happening to our people,” Parker said.

With the Till Bill 2 – the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Reauthorization Act of 2016 – that Kansas City, Kansas, human rights activist Alvin Sykes has been working on, a mechanism has been set up to investigate cold civil rights hate crimes. Parker credited Sykes’ work in getting the bill passed last year.

Parker said this seeking after justice is Sykes’ calling in life. “This is his area of expertise,” Parker said. “He has a fire in his belly.

“I tip my hat to him,” Parker said. “He doesn’t give up.”

Said Sykes, “The poison of Emmett’s death didn’t overcome him (Parker); he used it for a very positive life.”

The changing landscape

Alvin Sykes (File photo)

The landscape is changing in different ways for Sykes and his efforts to solve old civil rights hate crimes in America.

Sykes, a human rights activist in Kansas City, Kansas, who is president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, plans to meet with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, on Tuesday, March 28, in Washington, D.C., to discuss implementation of the Till Bill 2 at the Justice Department.

His work was not completed when the Till Bill passed Congress – it also needs to be implemented by the administration, which now has changed.

Sykes said he is asking the Justice Department to prioritize the Till Bill 2, and he wants to work with the attorney general’s office in developing a strategy for its implementation. Before, he said, there wasn’t much coordination between those working in the field and a strategy of how to implement it.

The main goal of the March 28 meeting is to open the lines of communication, he said. Some real issues may be discussed after the chief assistant attorney general for civil rights is appointed, he added.

Sykes is not just working on legislation in Washington, D.C., however. He also was working recently with State Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., on Senate Bill 128 in the Kansas Senate. This bill could double the penalties for hate crimes. The bill has been introduced in previous years and had its third hearing this year.

With a possible hate-crime link to a recent shooting in Olathe, Kansas, there was renewed interest in this bill, according to Sykes. He said since most of the acts of bias-motivated crimes are not murders, but are lesser crimes such as vandalism or assault, a lot of times they are not prosecuted. By increasing the penalties for these crimes, it makes the clear statement they won’t be tolerated, he said. He’s working on other bills, as well.

For Sykes, much of his effort is all about finding the truth, and getting closure, after so many years.

“He has no ulterior motive,” Parker said. “He just wants to see.”

To see an earlier story, visit

Kansas mental health centers seek exemption from gun law

by Meg Wingerter, Kansas News Service

Unless the Legislature makes a change, community mental health centers across Kansas will have to allow patients and staff to bring their guns starting in July.

A 2013 state law requires most publicly owned buildings to allow concealed weapons or to install metal detectors and post armed guards. The law included a four-year exemption for community mental health centers, universities, publicly owned medical facilities, nursing homes and low-income health clinics that ends July 1.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee had a hearing Thursday on a bill that would make the some exemptions permanent, however. Senate Bill 235 would continue the exemption for medical facilities, including the University of Kansas Hospital, but not college campuses.

Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, said he hopes lawmakers decide to continue the exemption for community mental health centers. He estimated it would cost millions to secure the center’s four buildings.

“There’s just no way we can take that much money away from services,” he said.

The mental health center already trains its employees to recognize and respond to signs of danger in case a patient decides to break the rules and bring a weapon, DeWeese said. Still, he worries that if more people bring guns, the odds of a violent incident will go up.

“With it being legal to do so, you’re going to see an increase” in people bringing guns, he said.

How to afford added security?

Brett Hildabrand, a former legislator who lobbies on behalf of the Kansas State Rifle Association, told the committee it would be naïve to assume patients already aren’t bringing guns into hospitals or mental health treatment facilities.

“We believe the facility should provide adequate security or allow individuals to feel secure” by carrying their own handguns, he said.

Most community mental health centers don’t have extra money for the added security measures, said Colin Thomasset, associate director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas. The state has cut its base grant to the 26 centers by 70 percent since fiscal year 2007, he said in written testimony to the committee.

Bill Persinger, CEO of Valeo Behavioral Health Care in Topeka, estimated installing metal detectors and hiring at least one guard for each of Valeo’s nine facilities would be “cost-prohibitive,” with expenses running to at least half a million dollars.

“There’s no place for a gun in a mental health facility,” he said.

The committee has yet to vote on the bill, which if approved would go to the full Senate.

State hospital estimates lowered

The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services didn’t take a position on SB 235, but KDADS staff said installing metal detectors and hiring guards for the state’s four facilities would cost more than $11 million. A previous estimate put the costs at more than $25 million.

Amy Penrod, director of finance and budget at KDADS, said the department calculated the lower cost based on securing only buildings where patients congregate and allowing a single entrance to those buildings. The estimate would go up if the facilities, which currently use unarmed security staff, have to retrain them to carry guns, she said.

Kimberly Lynch, KDADS chief counsel, said the department has concerns that patients at Osawatomie or Larned state hospital could take a gun from a visitor. Adding guards and metal detectors also could be a problem at Kansas Neurological Institute and Parsons State Hospital and Training Center, which house people with severe developmental disabilities, she said.

“These are their homes. They live there,” she said.

SB 235 is at least the fourth bill introduced this session that relates to the concealed carry law. A bill to permanently exempt only community mental health centers from the concealed carry law has yet to get a hearing, making it unlikely it could advance. A second bill exempting KU Medical Center failed in a committee vote, and a third bill, which would have extended all of the exemptions indefinitely, didn’t come up for a vote.

Meg Wingerter is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach her on Twitter @MegWingerter. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to

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KCK firefighters faced possible flammable materials fire at barn on Alma

Kansas City, Kansas, firefighters were fighting a large barn fire in the 1800 block of Alma this morning, according to fire officials.

Fire officials stated they believe there may be chemicals, ammunition and vehicles in the barn. It is also possible that propane was at the site, according to officials.

The fire was being fought in defensive mode only, according to officials.

The fire started around 10:50 a.m. and is now out, according to Deputy Chief John Zimbelman. He said the rain that fell this morning helped extinguish the fire.

Fire investigators are on the scene of the fire, trying to determine the cause of the fire, he said.