Civil rights activist James Bevel dies at age 72

Published 10:56 pm Saturday, December 20, 2008

Staff and wire

The Rev. James L. Bevel, a civil rights activist who helped organize movements such as the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement has died. He was 72-years-old.

Bevel died Friday in Virginia after a fight with pancreatic cancer, said a daughter, Chevara Orrin, who lives in Winston-Salem, N. C.

Email newsletter signup

Selma attorney Collins Pettaway met Bevel in the 1980s. The two often discussed their shared Christian faith. Pettaway said Bevel was one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights Movement.

“If it were not for James Bevel, the Selma to Montgomery March on Bloody Sunday might not have happened.”

Bevel was a top lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr. and also the architect of the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham.

The Baptist minister 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.

Bevel was born to sharecroppers on Oct. 19, 1936, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, 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, Virginia, 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 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.”