Mr. Harry Sykes

Harry Sykes, who for decades was a pioneering civil rights and government leader in Lexington and who also was an educator and a former professional basketball player, died Wednesday.

He was 85.

"He was a achiever; he was a trailblazer; he opened a lot of doors," said the Rev. T. H. Peoples Jr., pastor at Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, where Mr. Sykes was a longtime member and vice chairman of trustees.

"Lexington has lost a real citizen," Peoples said.

Mr. Sykes was first elected to Lexington's city council in 1963 - the first black person ever elected to the panel - and he served four consecutive terms. He also served as city manager and chief executive officer, and he was elected mayor pro-tem in 1967.

In 1971, he became the first black candidate for mayor of Lexington, ultimately losing to Foster Pettit.

He also was a teacher at the old Dunbar High School in Lexington, where he urged his students to study hard and find success despite the racial divide of the time. He told young black students that although "society has blocked you out, ... that cannot always be. You've got a lifetime to live."

Mr. Sykes was a founder of the Lexington-Fayette County Urgan League, and he served as its president.

Mr. Sykes was honored with a reception at Mayor Jim Gray's office just last month for his many years of service.

Joe Graves, another former city councilman in the 1960s, noted on that occasion that Mr. Sykes provided quiet community leadership during his long career.

"In 1968, after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Harry Sykes helped pull this town together," Graves said. "He helped give black people confidence in greater justice."

Mr. Sykes was born in Mississippi and attended a one-room school. His father was a sharecropper and a minister. Mr. Sykes later moved to Chicago, and he came to Kentucky to attend Kentucky State College (now Kentucky State University), where he was a star athlete, Peoples said.

After college, Mr. Sykes played two years with the Harlem Globetrotters. He then returned to Lexington and became a community leader.

Mr. Sykes is survived by his wife of 61 years, Geraldine Sykes, four sons and five daughters.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Smith and Smith Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

Published in Lexington Herald-Leader on Nov. 29, 2012