Posted on Sat, Dec. 20, 2008
Bevel died Friday in Virginia after a fight with pancreatic cancer, said a daughter, Chevara Orrin, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was recently released on bond while appealing a 15-year prison sentence.
Bevel was a top lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr. and architect of the 1963 Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Ala. But in April, a jury convicted Bevel of incest for having sex more than a decade ago with a then-teenage daughter.
Bevel served several months of his 15-year sentence before he was released in November on bond while appealing. Prosecutors opposed Bevel's release.
A Baptist minister, Bevel was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, two of the stalwart organizations that led efforts in the 1960s to desegregate the South. Decades later, he also helped organize the Million Man March.
"Jim Bevel was Martin Luther King's most influential aide," civil rights historian David J. Garrow said.
Bevel fought to desegregate downtown Birmingham stores, prompting police to respond with fire hoses and attack dogs against peaceful protesters. He also rallied young people in the city to get involved in civil rights demonstrations - something King and other advisers objected to.
On May 2, 1963, children marched from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and 600 were arrested on that first day of demonstrations. After the news media highlighted police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor's violent treatment of the children, public opinion began to shift in favor of the civil rights movement.
Two years later, Bevel was a key figure in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital. The demonstration was spurred largely by the killing of a young protester by an Alabama state trooper. The chain of events and police violence that was captured on national television ultimately culminated in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Bevel also was active in the anti-war movement and greatly influenced King, who Bevel encouraged to confront the Vietnam War more directly.
After King's assassination in 1968, Bevel helped lead many of King's unfinished efforts, such as a demonstration to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
In the decades after King's death, Bevel aligned himself with fringe movements. In 1992, he was vice presidential running mate to political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, who at the time was in a federal prison for a tax conviction.
Bevel was born to sharecroppers on Oct. 19, 1936, in Itta Bena, Miss., one of 17 children. He had stints in the Navy and graduated in 1961 from Nashville's American Baptist Theological Seminary.
Bevel married four times. He fathered 16 children with nine women, Orrin told The Associated Press.
His legacy in the civil rights movement was clouded when he was convicted in April by a Loudoun County, Va., judge for having sex more than a decade ago with one of his daughters, Aaralyn Mills, who was a teenager at the time. Prosecutors said the assault occurred in Loudoun County, when Bevel was working closely with the Virginia-based organization led by LaRouche.
The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sex crimes, but Mills and Orrin have agreed to be identified publicly.
The four-day trial divided members of Bevel's large family, with relatives testifying for both the prosecutor and defense. He was sentenced in October.
At that time, prosecutors revealed at least four other daughters had made similar allegations against him. The victims hoped for an apology and some reconciliation, but Bevel mocked the notion of an apology.
Orrin, who said she did not testify at Bevel's trial, said she was molested by her father when she was 12. On Saturday, she told The Associated Press she's still processing her "very complicated" feelings about his death.
She said Bevel's recent conviction does not detract from his work in the civil rights movement.
"I am very proud to be the daughter of a man who contributed so much to the world through his civil rights work. I am equally as devastated and disgusted by his pedophilia," Orrin said. "Both of those feelings reside in the same soul, in the same space of my heart."
Martin Luther King Jr., center, leading a civil rights march in Alabama in 1965, with James Bevel at far right. (William Lovelace - Getty Images)
James Bevel and James Orange spent April 4, 1968 at Clayburn Temple Church organizing young people.
The duo wanted to be sure that young people knew how they could be most effective during protests because they had been blamed for strike-related violence previously. After a day of organizing workshops, the two men drove back to the Lorraine Motel to join King and his other aides.
Orange and Bevel pulled into the parking lot, excited with the news they had to report to King.
"I was coming in to tell King about the enthusiasm and the clarity in the young people, in terms of their non-hostility — and they could think things through. We had about a couple hundred young people," Bevel says. They were all in a playful mood. The feeling among all the civil rights workers had been light all day long.
"James Orange was a great big guy, so James had picked me up and was holding me up over his head and Dr. King said, 'Don't hurt him, James.' We'd had a good meeting, good workshop with the young people. So we were in a playful mood." (Orange died in February.)
Bevel got ready to tell King about what they had experienced and then he heard a shot. He ducked for cover, as did everyone else in the Lorraine parking lot. "I thought the guy was going to keep shooting," he explained. "I took the position that if they shoot King, they know that we're coming after them. I wouldn't shoot a guy like that — if I was going to shoot a guy I would have to get his whole cabinet."
But the shooting stopped with the single blast. When Bevel got up, he darted to the stairs, but the Memphis police had already gotten there. Strangely, he said, an entire group of officers rushed over and blocked the entrance to the staircase.
"To me, that was abnormal...unless they had it pre-planned. I could see a policeman coming around, but these guys came around like a platoon of policemen in a formation. I mean, instantaneously," he says.
They threatened Bevel and the others with arrest, but he said they stood strong and the officers moved on.
The whole incident continues to frustrate Bevel. What vexes Bevel is the aftermath of the murder. "I think the big mess was not that King got killed, the big mess is that we didn't make sure that the man who was accused of killing him got his day in court. That was the breakdown of the movement," Bevel says. "So King getting killed didn't break the movement down — that had very little effect on the movement. But the fact that we didn't insist that the man that was accused got his day in court, that summarily ended the non-violent movement."
Ultimately, Bevel believes King's place was in Memphis that night, even if it did mean it was his demise. To Bevel, it was all part of the struggle. He explains, "If you're at war, you can't take your armor off. Like Paul said: "Put on the whole armor of God. You can't go to battle with your armor unfastened because sooner or later you're going to pick up an arrow from somewhere.'"
With Reporting by David Von Drehle
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