Washington Post Magazine: A Father's Shadow

Aaralyn Mills's court testimony helped convict civil rights leader James Bevel of incest.
Aaralyn Mills's court testimony helped convict civil rights leader James Bevel of incest. (Rebecca Drobis)
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Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008; 12:00 PM

In her late 20s, Aaralyn Mills decided to publicly reveal the greatest trauma of her childhood -- and the man responsible: her father, civil rights era hero James Bevel. She wanted to save her younger sister from a similar fate.

Staff writer Les Carpenter was online Tuesday, May 27 to discuss his Washington Post Magazine story, "A Father's Shadow."

Submit your questions and comments before or during the live discussion.


Les Carpenter: Hello and welcome. The story on Aaralyn Mills was one of the most heartbreaking and yet hopeful that I have ever worked on in my career. I'm here to answer any questions you might have about it.


Powhatan, Va.: How have Aaralyn Mills' spiritual or religious views on life been impacted by her trauma as a child? Has it changed much during her adult experiences?

Les Carpenter: This is an interesting question. Obviously Aaralyn grew up with a minister as a father and seemed to know his lessons and understand much of his logic but I can't say I found her to be a terribly spiritual person. At one point she told me in the midst of her despair (around the time she was living with her father in Leesburg) that she prayed to both God and the devil no longer sure what entity she should believe in. I don't think she is a regular church goer and I'm not aware that she practices any faith.

I imagine it was hard to grow up the child of a man who preached about Jesus and yet at the same time was forced to endure so much trauma from him.


Washington, D.C.: This was very well written. My heart and compassion goes to Aaralyn Bevel for sharing her story. I know this will touch many people and give them courage!

Les Carpenter: Thank you. Early on as I worked on this piece I asked Aaralyn why she was telling me all of this. We were still many months away from the trial and it was likely this story would appear before the trial began, splashing her name and life in the papers before she faced a jury. She said she felt she had nothing to hide and also made it clear that she hoped that by telling her story she might help other girls who were going through the same thing.


Silver Spring, Md.: I believe that her mother, grandmother and all of the adults who sat around to "hear" her letter about being "molested" should be arrested. They knew and did nothing to help her. They knew it was wrong whether or not it had happened to them but to ignore a child's cry for help, YOUR child's cry for help is "criminal neglect" and her mother should go to jail for as well!!

Les Carpenter: I think this is far more complicated than that. I had several conversations with her mother who seemed very conflicted about what happened. You have to realize the hold Jim Bevel has on people. Those who have been with him describe him as a powerful personality like a cult leader. They believed in him, trusted him and could not understand who something like this happened. I think Aaralyn's mother shut down emotionally and mentally upon reading the letter. She tried to resolve the matter in the way Bevel always did -- with a group discussion. But Aaralyn was uncomfortable in that setting. After hearing both of them talk I realized that it was an unfortunate circumstance where neither knew how to handle the situation. My guess is this happens far too often in cases like this.


Selma, Alabama: James Bevel is still a hero around here. Do you think most people can separate what he did as a movement figure and what he is now known to have done to his daughter?

Les Carpenter: That's a great question and I'm not sure I know the answer. Certainly talking to men like Andrew Young and Bernard Lafayette you can tell they are tormented by this. They remember the great things he did in Selma and Birmingham and they say they were shocked to hear about these charges. When I've asked historians what they think they all say you have to separate the two: celebrate his legacy in the movement but lament what he did with his children.

Lafayette probably summed this up best when he said "I don't think prison is what he needs." Meaning that this is clearly an illness and Bevel probably needs some kind of help.

While my primary focus in this piece was to tell Aaralyn's story, I wanted readers to know something too about Bevel. His is an obscure figure in history and yet his place in the movement is very significant.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: First, what has happened to the little girl that they were trying to protect? Secondly, were you able to ascertain the relationship between your subject and her own children? It seems to me that she is so damaged that she might not be able to love her own children fully.

Les Carpenter: I disagree completely with your second point. I don't believe Aaralyn or most of her sisters are damaged by what happened. Each has been affected in their own way. Her sister Chevara spoke passionately about years of fractured relationships with men as a result of what happened to her, but she has come through this and has a wonderful family. The same is true for Aaralyn who is fantastic with her children. From everything I have seen she is a very loving and giving mother.

The little girl lives full time by court order with her grandparents (on the mother's side).


thank you: in a time of war, campaigning, bravado, It is so valuable to be reminded of what TRUE STRENGTH is.

Les Carpenter: I think this is a great point. Both Aaralyn and many of her sisters have spoken of feeling powerless through the years. Chevara and Bacardi said repeatedly that they worried no one would ever believe them. All of them knew about Birmingham and Bull Connor and knew their father charged fearlessly into the heart of a racist system and won. What chance did they have?

Aaralyn talks a lot about "what I was up against" when referring to her trial. It took a tremendous amount of strength on everyone's part in this family to finally confront this.


Fairfax County, Virginia: Once again I am puzzled by a situation where the bad person seems to me to be literally psychotic -- not someone who chose to do something wrong (and criminal), like a bank robber might, but just utterly nuts. The fact that he didn't hire a lawyer and that he is so emotionless about the whole thing make me feel he should just be committed as mentally ill, or at least kept away by court order from ever having a child near him, much less living with him, rather than jailed. A trial and the criminal justice system just doesn't seem to fit. How do you sort out the crime vs. psychosis aspect of this, or doesn't it matter to you?

Les Carpenter: I think this goes back to the question of how do you separate Bevel's success in the civil rights movement from the things he did to his daughters. Clearly he has some kind of mental illness. Most of the primary people in the movement believe this at some level. Attempts to commit him were not successful. There are stories where he was taken to a mental hospital only to dazzle the doctors with his theories and rhetoric. This goes back to the cult of personality that makes him such a powerful man. Even the people who should have helped him years ago (and prevented this) were awed by him.


Washington, D.C.: Did James Bevel actually know Dr. Martin Luther King? Or was he one of the people who said afterwards that he was important when he really wasn't?

Les Carpenter: oh no they knew each other very well. Although how well is up for debate. Randy Kryn, who is Bevel's personal historian, pushes the idea that King and Bevel had a partnership in which Bevel would be the brains of the movement and King would front it. This notion is disputed by most other historians and people like Andrew Young who say Bevel was important and influential and King listened to Bevel because the ideas were so fresh and the energy so strong, but that King also kept his distance some because he was unsure of Bevel's mental state.

There is no doubt they knew each other well, however.


Phoenix, Ariz.: My husband was repeatedly molested by an uncle who took in foster children. He went to his mother because he knew the uncle was probably molesting the foster kids. She did NOTHING.

His mother, to this day, cries and asks him "why are you trying to hurt me" when he brings the subject up. He no longer brings the subject up. He has tried to contact the perpetrator but cannot remember his whole name and his mother refuses to supply it to him.

You mentioned how children can become prey when there is no one to believe them. I would bet that not all the Bevel kids were molested... because they didn't meet Bevel's "criteria" of being able to be manipulated. My husband's rejection by his mother led to him being preyed upon by two other pedophiles because he knows that he portrayed that vulnerability. Did Aaralyn believe that in her family as well that certain members fit a vulnerability mold and thus were likely prey?

Les Carpenter: I don't know, this is an interesting question and if any of the sisters are monitoring this perhaps they can provide a better answer. There aren't many people who knew Bevel well who didn't find themselves somehow swayed by him. I think most young children are somewhat easy to manipulate.


Powhatan, Va.: Les, I'd like to compliment you on your excellent article. It was also great to see the in-depth coverage on a topic most people would like to ignore.

By the way,I was surprised to see at the end of the article that your writing is mostly for the Post Sports section. Do you think you might be writing in the future more on special human events? I hope so (nothing against sports, mind you). How did it affect your own outlook on (in)humanity within families?

Les Carpenter: I'm not sure my being a sports writer brought a different perspective to this story in terms of the humanity but I've always believed that we are allowed more freedom to recognize non-traditional stories than writers in other sections. Ironically I came into to this story while working on a piece about Aaralyn's husband Nathaniel, a former speed skater.


Chicago, Ill.: Do you know what the relationship is between Aaralyn and her mother today?

Les Carpenter: I think they have a good relationship. I know her mother was hurt by the way she was portrayed in the trial and I'm sure she won't be happy with the portrayal in this story. It's unfortunate I didn't have the space to explore that relationship deeper because Helen is a very sweet woman who really does love her daughter. I also believe she remains conflicted about Bevel. She knows what he did to Aaralyn and she is heartbroken about that but she is one of the people who insists that her former husband's place in the movement was more significant than history credits him for. I feel she still may be in love with Bevel today.

But that said, her loyalties seem to lie with Aaralyn.


Leesburg, Va.: Very good article. It really showed what a monster Rev. Bevel is and how much his actions have harmed children and affected them for their entire lives. What I find very disturbing is how a sick man like Rev. Bevel can do these evil things for years without shame or guilt.

Have you looked closely at his work with the Moon and LaRouche cults? From what I have read, Bevel helped LaRouche after he was paroled from prison for tax evasion and defrauding his elderly supporters of millions of dollars.

Have you ever taken a close look at how the LaRouche cult with Rev. Bevel went to Nebraska when he was LaRouche's running mate and helped create a massive hoax of child abuse being run by the older Bush and the White House?

It is fitting that Rev. Bevel, who worked so hard on spreading this hoax is himself going to prison for doing incredibly sick and disgusting things to his own family.

Reading the direct quotes you have by Rev. Bevel show him to be as loony as his former running mate LaRouche.

Les Carpenter: I can't say whether Bevel failed to feel shame or guilt. He may be tormented by all of this. One never knows what goes on inside of a person's soul.

The pairing of LaRouche and Bevel is an odd one and never really seemed to make much sense. But LaRouche was the reason Bevel was in Leesburg and he clearly offered Bevel support. Supposedly the apartment where the incident in question took place had a direct line to the LaRouche headquarters and some of the people who were to look after Aaralyn at the time were LaRouche followers.


Miramar, Fla.: I was one of the daughters, who to my knowledge was not molested. I say "to my knowledge" because I don't know what may have happened to me when I was very young and we have reports that Jim likely abused children as young as 3.

I was a very strong personality and often confronted Jim even as a child about his ideas. Nonetheless, he was physically more powerful and did not hesitate to use his physical strength against me when I went after him with all of my might after he abused my sister. We did not grow up with him and were not psychologically convinced that sexual interactions with him were correct or proper, but this did not stop him.

Les Carpenter: Here is a response from one of Bevel's daughters


How much time?: Great piece, Les. How much time can we expect Rev. Bevel to do?

Les Carpenter: The jury recommended a sentence of no more than 15 years. The judge has final say and can give an amount significantly less if he chooses. Given that he pulled Bevel's bail pending sentencing because of the nature of the crime, my guess is he will go for closer to the 15. That said I believe the most he would serve of that is 3-5 years.


Spokane, Washington: Les, Randy Kryn here, thanks for the mention. Although James Bevel's personal life needs much more research, my main work concerns his movement years (1960-67). An online paper I wrote in 2005, "Movement Revision Research Summary Regarding James Bevel", gives an adequate summary of Bevel's history, including that with Dr. King. Historian David Garrow agrees with most if not all of these findings, and quotes from an interview I did with Andrew Young covers his position: "I don't think we would have had a movement without him." "He played a very important role, and that role was translated into a successful movement."

As for James Bevel's interreactions with his daughter, I never saw any of that and only heard of these things about eight months ago. He's now paying the price, and hopefully he will tell everyone more about his motivations and feelings towards his family.

Les Carpenter: Here is a comment from Randy Kryn, Bevel's historian.


Memphis, Tenn.: Based on your discussions with the family and others Les, what laws or processes do you think need changing to deal with child molestation, incest, and other forms of child abuse - especially sexual abuse?

Les Carpenter: I'm not sure I know the answer myself. Many of Bevel's children would like to see national or state laws that remove the statute of limitations on such crimes. Say a similar law existed in Tennessee that exists in Virginia, it might well have been Chevara who pursued these charges and not Aaralyn.


Memphis, Tenn. : Thanks so much Les for your compassionate prose and balanced perspectives and your current responses. As you know, this has been a lengthy family process to try to resolve these issues, protect the youngest daughter and other children, to heal and rebuild all of our lives. We tried diligently to get Jim to accept counseling and even contacted some psychologists and psychiatrists who said they would assist if Jim would be open to this. He seems still in denial and does not appear to believe he needs counseling. - Susanne

Les Carpenter: This is from one of the mothers of Bevel's children (not Aaralyn)


Reston, Va.: I applaud Ms Bevel for taking such a public step forward, and hope that it's helped her to deal with the horrors that she has had to live through.

Has she experienced negative backlash in the community?

Les Carpenter: I have not sensed a great one and I think a lot of us were wondering if she would. I think most people realize this is larger than skin color. James Bevel was an important man in the civil rights movement and significant advances came directly because of him. But, again, I think most people distinguish between the personal man and the public man.


Alexandria, Va.: Regarding someone who is seen to have spent his professional life devoted to helping others achieve true freedom and equality but who actually had such horrifying, belittling views of women and medieval views of sex (i.e., women should only have sex to reproduce, not to receive pleasure; their "training" in their proper role should be achieved by force) -- I fail to see how one's opinion of him as a civil rights leader could not be permanently altered. He may be mentally ill but over, above and below that he also has views which run as contrary to our cherished principles of equality and freedom as one could possibly invent.

Frankly, to me he sounds like a monster. How in the world did this aspect of his world view escape the attention of his fellow civil rights activists?

Les Carpenter: Well again I think it goes back to the sheer force of his personality. He brought so much power and energy to the movement people focused on that. Certainly the leaders had a good idea something was wrong but most of the things we're talking about now had not happened yet (almost all of his children were born after King's death). I have heard from some leaders that his first wife, Diane Nash (who also played a significant role in the movement) would say things like "you don't know what is going on" as their marriage fell apart in the late 60s.

Another factor is that King seemed to protect Bevel. There were many other people within the movement who didn't trust him or felt he wasn't stable. King understood that, from all accounts but felt the craziness added a dimension that was necessary


Boulder, Colorado: As a young man I'm curious of what the impact on James Bevel's sons are? How many does he have?

Les Carpenter: He has four sons that I've met. The impact on all of them is complex because he had a better relationship with them as children than he did with his daughters. Douglass, the one who pushed this, is still dealing with this in a way that I'm not sure the other men are. Toward the end of my work on this I spoke a few times with Bevel's youngest son, Enoch, who is a student at Georgetown and an impressive young man who may someday get into politics. His is very much torn because he loves his father and is learning about all the great things he did and yet he was raised at times by Aaralyn and another sister Bacardi. He has to balance their experiences with his own and I know it has been difficult for him.

One thing I have come to realize is this has brought many of them closer together


Richmond: I have a lingering concern that some of his contemporaries thought him unstable, heard rumors of his abuse, yet chose to overlook that in favor of what he was willing to do for the cause. The underlying value of EQUALITY was ignored.

Les Carpenter: I think there is some guilt about that too. But remember the times and remember what the movement's leaders were up against. They were focused on winning civil rights rather than focused on internal conflicts or concerns about productive members of the movement. Realize too that King seemed to protect and support Bevel.


Chicago, Ill.: As Aaralyn's mother I would like to say that I am very proud of her for having the courage to confront a wrong done to her. I told her the other day that she is my hero. When she was asked to tell what happened to the women I had asked to attend the meeting and my mother, she was mute, so my mother didn't hear what happened. I was traumatized upon reading the letter and still dealing with my own physical abuse at the hand of Bevel.

Personally, I believe that Bevel's problem is a direct result of the sexual abuse that we suffered during slavery unhealed. Incest was perpetrated on the plantation as slaves did not have the option to go to other plantations to secure mates. Bevel was born and raised on a plantation, and the mentality was still and still is in effect. This is a problem we have yet to address as a people.

Les Carpenter: Many of you asked about Aaralyn's mother. Here is a comment from her


Memphis, Tenn.: Thanks, Les, for your compassionate prose, patience, insight and incredible balance in sharing these heroic and tragic life experiences.

Les Carpenter: Thanks for your note and for all the questions that have come in today. Aaralyn and her brothers and sisters really are impressive people which is maybe the most ironic thing of all. Yes it is easy to say Bevel was a monster but he produced amazing children. One of the great laments many of his children have is that he was never able to be the great parental figure they would have liked. He could have given them so much. In the end they had to find that strength on their own.


Les Carpenter: That's all the time I have for questions today. Please feel free to email me at carpenterl@washpost.com if you have anything more.


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