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James L. Bevel (October 19, 1936 – December 19, 2008) was an Americanmarker minister and leader of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement who, as the Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) initiated, strategized, directed, and developed SCLC's three major successes of the era: the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade, the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, and the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement. James Bevel also called for and initially organized the 1963 March on Washington and initiated and strategized the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, SCLC's two main public gatherings of the era. For his work in the 1960s he has been referred to as the "Father of Voting Rights", the "Strategist and Architect of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement", and as half of the Bevel/King team that formulated and communicated the actions, issues, and dialogues which created the historical changes of the era.

Prior to his time with SCLC James Bevel worked in the Nashvillemarker Student Movement, where he participated in the 1960 Nashville Sit-In movement, directed the 1961 Open Theater Movement, chose the riders for the 1961 Nashville Student Movement continuation of the Freedom Rides, and initiated and directed the Mississippimarker Voting Rights Movement. Later, in 1967, he took a leave from SCLC to direct the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and in 1995 co-initiated the Day of Atonement/Million Man March.

In April, 2008 Bevel was convicted of unlawful fornication and sentenced to 15 years in prison. After serving seven months, he was freed on bail to appeal, and died of cancer in December 2008. He was buried in a 17-foot canoe in a small country cemetery in Eutaw, Alabamamarker. James Bevel was married four times and had 16 children.

Early life and education

Born in Itta Bena, Mississippimarker, James Bevel grew up and worked on a plantation, received schooling in Mississippi and Cleveland, Ohiomarker, and served in the Navy for a time. He attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennesseemarker from 1957 to 1961, and while attending college re-read Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You (he had first read it while in the Navy and which directly led to his decision to leave the military). Bevel also read several of Mohandas Gandhi's books and newspapers while taking workshops on Gandhian Nonviolence taught by Reverend James Lawson. Bevel also attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School taught by its founder, Myles Horton.

Nashville Student Movement, SNCC involvement in Selma

In 1960, with several of James Lawson's and Myles Horton's other students — Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, Diane Nash and others — Bevel participated in the 1960 Nashville Sit-In Movement, which desegregated the city's lunch counters. After the success of this early movement action, James Bevel directed the 1961 Nashville Open Theater Movement, and then coordinating the Nashville students continuation of the 1961 Freedom Rides, organized and led by Nash.

While in jail in Mississippi at the end of the Freedom Rides, Bevel and Lafayette initiated the Mississippi Voting Rights Movement, and they, Nash, and others stayed in Mississippi to work on what soon became known as the Mississippi Freedom Movement. Earlier the Nashville students and others developed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Bevel, Nash, Lafayette and his wife Colia Lidell opened a project in Selma, Alabamamarker, to assist the work of local organizers like Amelia Boynton.

1962 Bevel/King Agreement

In 1962, after several successful years working on and organizing within the Nashville Student Movement, James Bevel was invited to meet with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlantamarker. At that meeting, which had been suggested by James Lawson, Bevel and King agreed to work together, on an equal basis, on projects under the auspices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which would end segregation, obtain voting rights, and assure quality education for all American children. They agreed to not stop until these steps occurred, and also to ask for funding for SCLC only if the group was involved in organizing a movement.

Bevel soon became SCLC's Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education, and King remained SCLC's chairman and spokesperson.

1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade and its planned March on Washington

In 1963, after SCLC agreed to assist one of its founders, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and others in their work on a movement in Birmingham, Alabama, James Bevel came up with the idea of using children to "stand-up" for their own freedom. He spent weeks strategizing, organizing and educating Birmingham's elementary and high school students in the philosophy and techniques of nonviolence, and then directed them to meet at and march from Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church to Birmingham's City Hall to talk to its Mayor about segregation in the city. This action culminated in international public outrage over the cities use of fire hoses and dogs to stop the children from marching to City Hall.During the Birmingham Children's Crusade, President John F. Kennedy asked King to stop involving children in the campaign. King told Bevel to not use the students anymore, but instead, Bevel told King he would not stop the action, went directly to the children, and asked them to prepare to take to the highways on a march to Washington to question Kennedy about correcting the problem of segregation in America. The Kennedy administration, hearing of this plan, asked SCLC's leaders what they would want to see in a comprehensive civil rights bill, which was then written-up and agreed to by SCLC's leadership, thus ending the need for the children of Birmingham to march the highways to Washington.

Shortly thereafter, in August 1963, SCLC participated in what has become known as the March on Washington, an event organized by labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who had been the original planners (with A. J. Muste) of the 1941 March on Washington. Just as the "threat" of the children marching along the highway from Birmingham to Washington led directly to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the threat of the 1941 march led President Franklin Roosevelt to sign the Fair Employment Act, and neither march was actually held.

The Alabama Project and the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement

Weeks after the March On Washington, in September 1963, a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birminghammarker killed four young girls attending Sunday School. James Bevel responded by proposing the Alabama Voting Rights Project, co-wrote the project proposal with his then wife, Diane Nash, and the two soon moved to Alabama and began to implement the project along with Birmingham student activist James Orange. Starting in late 1963 they organized Alabama until, in late 1964, SCLC and Dr. King (SCLC's Board and King had opposed and did not work on the Alabama Project) came to Selma to work alongside the ongoing Bevel/Nash Alabama Voting Rights Project and the SNCC's Voting Rights Project — which was headed at that time by Reverend Prathia Hall and Worth Long (Bernard Lafayette had been its first chairman). The Alabama Project and its SNCC counterpart then became collectively known as the Selma Voting Rights Movement.

The Selma Voting Rights Movement officially began in early January, 1965, grew, and had some successes. Then, on February 16, 1965, a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, went with his mother and grandfather to participate in a nighttime march led by Reverend C. T. Vivian to free James Orange, who was being held in jail in Marion, Alabamamarker. After the street lights were turned off Jackson was shot in the stomach while defending his mother from an attack by the Alabama State Troopers, and he died a few days later.
When James Bevel heard of Jackson's death he called for a march from Selma to Montgomery to talk to Governor George Wallace about the attack in which Jackson was shot. During the first march a group of marchers — including SNCC Chairman John Lewis and Amelia Boynton — were bludgeoned and tear-gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridgemarker on what then became known as "Bloody Sunday". After a court order cleared the way for the march, hundreds of religious, labor and civic leaders, and many celebrities and citizens alike, walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Before this final march occurred, President Lyndon Johnson had gone on national television to address a joint session of Congress and demanded that it pass a comprehensive Voting Rights Act.

Because of the unprecedented success of the 1963-1965 Alabama Project, in 1965 SCLC gave its highest honor—the Rosa Parks Award—to James Bevel and Diane Nash.

The 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement

In 1966, Bevel chose Chicagomarker as the site of SCLC's long-awaited Northern Campaign. There he at first worked on "ending" slums, and created tenent unions, and then, choosing the main theme of the action—from previous discussions and agreements with Dr. King and from the ideas and work of American Friends Service Committee activist Bill Moyer--strategized, organized, and directed the Chicago Open Housing Movement. This movement ended within a Summit Conference which included Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

As the Chicago movement neared its conclusion A.J. Muste, David Dellinger, representatives of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, and others asked Rev. Bevel to take over the directorship of the Spring Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam. After researching the war, and after getting Dr. King's agreement to work with him on this project, Bevel agreed to lead the antiwar effort. He renamed the organization the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, brought many diverse groups into the movement, and strategized and organized the April 15, 1967 march from Central Parkmarker to the United Nations Building. It became the largest demonstration in American history to that date. During his speech to the crowd that day, Bevel called for a larger march in Washington D.C., a plan which evolved into the October 1967 March on the Pentagon.

Bevel, who witnessed King's assassination on April 4, 1968, reminded SCLC's executive board and staff that evening that Dr. King had left "marching orders" that if anything should happen to him Rev. Ralph Abernathy should take his place as SCLC's Chairman. Bevel opposed SCLC's next action, the 1969 Poor People's Campaign, but in order to handle any problems which may have occurred he took on the role of its Director of Nonviolent Education.

1969 to 1984

After leaving SCLC in 1969, Bevel went on to found the Making of a Man Clinic in 1970 and the Students for Education and Economic Development (SEED) in the early 1980s. Bevel ran as the Republican candidate for Illinoismarker' 7th Congressional District in 1984.

Moon and LaRouche involvements

In 1989 Bevel, together with Ralph Abernathy, organized the National Committee Against Religious Bigotry and Racism, a group backed by the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. Bevel denounced the deprogramming of a Moon follower as reminiscent of the "pre-civil rights mentality" and called for the protection of religious rights. That same year Bevel took part in a public protest against the Chicago Tribune because of that newspaper's use of the word "Moonies" referring to Unification Church members. Bevel handed out fliers at the protest which said: "Are the Moonies our new niggers?"

Bevel moved to Omaha, Nebraskamarker, in November 1990 as the leader of the "Citizens Fact-Finding Commission to Investigate Human Rights Violations of Children in Nebraska", a group organized by the Schiller Institute. The group, associated with economist and conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, distributed petitions seeking to reopen the state legislature's two-year investigation into the Franklin child prostitution ring allegations. Bevel never submitted the collected petitions and left the state the following summer. In 1992, Bevel ran as the vice presidential candidate on LaRouche's ticket while that perennial candidate was serving a prison sentence for mail fraud and tax evasion. He engaged in LaRouche seminars on issues like "Is the Anti Defamation League the new KKK?" When he introduced LaRouche to a convention of the National African American Leadership Summit in 1996, both men were booed off the stage and a fight broke out between LaRouche supporters and black nationalists.

1995 Day of Atonement/Million Man March

Louis Farakhan credits Bevel with helping to formulate the the 1995 Day of Atonement/Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Its main sponsor was the Nation of Islam.

Criminal charges

In May 2007, James Bevel was arrested in Alabama on charges of incest committed sometime between October 1992 and October 1994 in Loudoun County, Virginiamarker; Bevel was living in Leesburg, Virginiamarker at the time and working with LaRouche's group, whose international headquarters was a few blocks from Bevel's apartment.

The accuser, one of his daughters, was 13–15 years old at the time, and lived with him in the Leesburg apartment. Three of his other daughters have also alleged that Bevel sexually abused them, although not with intercourse. Charged with one-count of unlawful fornication in Virginiamarker, which has no statute of limitations for incest, Bevel pleaded innocent and continued to deny the main accusation. His four-day trial in April, 2008, included "testimony about Bevel's philosophies for eradicating lust, and parents' duties to sexually orient their children". During the trial, the accusing daughter testified that she was repeatedly molested beginning when she was six years old.

During the trial, prosecutors used as key evidence against Bevel a 2005 police-sting telephone call recorded by the Leesburg, Virginiamarker police without his knowledge. During that 90 minute call, Bevel's daughter asked him why he had sex with her during her teen years, and she asked him why he wanted her to use a vaginal douche afterward. Bevel's response to his daughter was that he had no interest in getting her pregnant. Bevel's statements were used against him during the trial after he denied committing sexual acts with his daughter.

On April 10, 2008, after a three-hour deliberation, the jury found Bevel guilty, his bond was revoked, and he was taken into custody. The judge sentenced him on October 15, 2008, to 15 years in prison and fined him $50,000. After the verdict, Bevel claimed that the charges were part of a conspiracy to destroy his reputation, and said that he might appeal. He received an appeal bond on November 4, 2008 and was released from prison three days later, six weeks before his death at 72 in Springfield, Virginiamarker.

See also



  • "James L. Bevel, The Strategist of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement", a 1984 paper by Randy Kryn, published with a 1988 addendum by Kryn in Prof. David Garrow's "We Shall Overcome Volume II" (Carlson Publishing Company 1989)
  • "Revision of 1960s Civil Rights Movement History" by Randy Kryn, May, 2000
  • "Movement Revision Research Summary Regarding James Bevel", by Randy Kryn, October, 2005, published and put on the internet by Middlebury Collegemarker.
  • "Advocate of the People's Rights: James Luther Bevel, The Right To Vote Movement", compiled by Helen L. Edmond, 2007 (

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