King Adviser James Bevel, 72; Incest Sentence Clouded Legacy

The Rev. James Bevel demonstrates outside U.S. District Court during the trial of Marion Barry in 1990.
The Rev. James Bevel demonstrates outside U.S. District Court during the trial of Marion Barry in 1990. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Alexander Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Rev. James L. Bevel, 72, a fiery top lieutenant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a force behind civil rights campaigns of the 1960s whose erratic behavior and conviction on incest charges tarnished his legacy, died in Virginia on Dec. 19 of pancreatic cancer.

Sherrilynn Bevel, a daughter, said he died at her home in Springfield. She said Rev. Bevel, who was freed on bond because of ill health, had been there since Nov. 8.

"Jim Bevel was Martin Luther King's most influential aide," said civil rights historian David J. Garrow. He cited Rev. Bevel's "decisive influence" on the Birmingham "children's crusade" of 1963 that helped revive the movement, the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and King's increased outspokenness against the Vietnam War.

Rev. Bevel, an ordained Baptist minister, came to prominence while he was Alabama project coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization led by King.

In the early 1960s, the SCLC campaigned to desegregate Birmingham's downtown stores, which led police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor to respond with police attack dogs and fire hoses at full blast against the peaceful protesters.

Over the objections of King and his other advisers, Rev. Bevel rallied youngsters in Birmingham to the frontlines of civil rights demonstrations. He argued that children old enough to accept Christ were old enough to live their faith.

On May 2, 1963, the children began marching from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and 600 were arrested on that first of two days of protests. Through media coverage, which focused on Connor's violent treatment of the children, public opinion began to turn in favor of the civil rights movement.

However, violence persisted in Birmingham, including the Sept. 15 dynamite bombing that year that claimed the lives of four black girls during services at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Afterward, Rev. Bevel proved a key figure in the 1965 march from Selma to the Alabama capital, Montgomery. The march was prompted in large part by the fatal shooting that February of a young protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama state trooper.

Rev. Bevel and activist Bernard LaFayette Jr. went to meet with Jackson's family and asked Jackson's grandfather to march with them. The next day at a mass meeting, Rev. Bevel "announced that he was gonna march, and who else was with him? And everyone stood up," LaFayette said in an interview.

The chain of events touched off by the police violence that ensued -- all captured on national television -- culminated in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

All through this period, Rev. Bevel was respected as a preacher as much as a strategist. In an interview, Jesse Jackson called him a "creative genius," while Barnard College sociologist Jonathan Rieder, a King expert, said Rev. Bevel "was as brilliant an orator and more inventive than King."

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