Alvin Sykes’ birth was the result of the rape of his 14-year-old mother. He was given to an acquaintance of his mother to be raised. He had epilepsy and mental illness as a young boy. When his foster mother could no longer raise him, he was sent to Boys Town. Alvin never liked school and dropped out after the eighth grade. Rather than going to school, he went to the local library and educated himself.
Alvin spent a year in the Marines and returned home to manage a band. He met Herbie Hancock, a famous jazz musician, who convinced him to become a Buddhist. From that moment, Alvin led a monk’s life in the pursuit of social justice. He had no home or job. Those who believed in him gave him support.
Through self-education, Alvin became an advocate for those who had been wronged by the courts. In 1983, Alvin convinced the court system to reopen the case of an African American musician who had been killed by a white man. He successfully argued that the musician’s civil rights were violated. The case was reassigned in federal court, and the accused was given a life sentence. The widow of the slain musician made Alvin aware of the injustice given to her distant cousin, Emmitt Till.
At the age of 14, Till had been kidnapped and murdered by two white men. An all-white jury found the two men not guilty. After years of researching the case, Alvin was able to get the Justice Department to re-examine the case. The two men were convicted when the case was retried.
Alvin was encouraged to explore other past abuses of the judicial system. Even after Alvin suffered a paralyzing injury, he continued to advocate for reopening cold cases. While Alvin had no formal education, few attorneys or judges could outdo him when it came to framing a legal justification for a case he was working.
When you reflect back on Alvin’s life, he had every reason to begrudge his circumstances. He never did that. His determination to education himself was remarkable. His doggedness in not giving up on cases was astonishing. His willingness to continue on even after being paralyzed was just another way he became a role model for living a purposeful life.
All too often we make excuses for ourselves when we are dealt a “bad hand.” It’s easy to do. Self-pity is an addiction that entraps those who would rather dwell on their circumstances than their life purpose.
Overcoming self-pity is not easy. It takes determination, courage, and a refusal to accept setbacks as anything more than a temporary bump in the road. All of us probably know someone who is filled with self-pity. We owe it to them to help convert their self-pity into self-determination.
* * *
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” – Nora Ephron (filmmaker)