A Father's Shadow

He was a hero of the civil rights movement, but he was something else, too -- a man who preyed on his daughters

By Les Carpenter
Sunday, May 25, 2008; Page W16

THE DETECTIVE WITH THE KIND EYES AND GENTLE MANNER led Aaralyn Mills into a barren interrogation room at the Leesburg police station on a mid-autumn day in 2005. In the center of the room was a table, and on the table sat a telephone. The phone was attached to a tape recorder, which had a listening wire that the detective placed in his ear. In the stillness of the concrete walls, the implication of what Aaralyn was about to do was suddenly very clear. Slowly, she picked up the receiver and dialed her father's number.

She had been preparing for this call ever since she had walked into the station a few weeks before and told the Leesburg detective, Michael Amato, that her father, James Bevel, had molested her on countless occasions throughout her childhood. And that on one day in particular, about 12 or 13 years before, when she was about 15 years old, he'd had sexual intercourse with her in an apartment not more than 1,500 feet from where she now sat. Amato listened patiently, then asked if Aaralyn believed her father would admit to this. She said she was sure he would.

By now, Amato knew who Aaralyn's father was, having searched the Internet for the Rev. James Bevel. Bevel, the detective had learned, had been a crucial figure in the 1960s civil rights movement, the architect of some of its most significant moments. Now his daughter was trying to get him to admit to transgressions that could send him to jail for the rest of his life.

Even so, Aaralyn would later say that she did not feel guilty that day. She was not angry. She did not hate her father. After years of drinking and having thoughts of suicide, she had found peace in her life. Were it not for her 8-year-old half sister, she wouldn't even be here. But the girl -- the youngest of Bevel's 16 children with seven women -- was living with him and his fourth wife in Alabama. Aaralyn and some of her other siblings were worried about what might happen to this child if she continued to live with their father. If they were going to take their youngest sister away from him, Aaralyn had to do this.

As the wheels of the tape recorder rolled, Aaralyn, then 27, brought up a period of her life that she had longed to forget. She spoke in a cool, emotionless voice, her tone strong, her words firm.

"You don't consider yourself to be a pedophile?" she asked Bevel.

Her questions seemed to make her father, then 69, angry. He screamed and swore until it was hard to make out some of his words. All women, he shouted, are prostitutes until they reach a state where sex is only for procreation. He called himself a scientist who tried to teach his children the difference between perversion and procreation.

"What female," he raged, "produces a son that's worth a goddamn, that can stand on principles because his mother educated him early on to be principled, because she was principled? Where is one who is not a prostitute?"

None of it was new to Aaralyn, who'd heard such convoluted pseudo-philosophical outbursts so many times that she could repeat many of her father's theories herself.

"So, what you [are] saying [is] that all your sexual interactions with me were . . . scientific processes?" the daughter asked.

"Yes, ma'am," the father replied.

The detective listened impassively as Bevel bellowed and Aaralyn pressed. For 90 minutes, no matter where her father's rants went, she deftly turned the conversation back to that day in the apartment in Leesburg. And when it was over, police and prosecutors had the key piece of evidence they would need to charge an aging civil rights icon with incest.

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