James Bevel

James Bevel Biography

Minister, Songwriter, Civil Rights Activist (1936–2008)
James Bevel was a civil rights activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. In 2008, Bevel was convicted of committing incest with one of his daughters.

Who Was James Bevel? 

James Bevel was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1936. He became a civil rights activist, and helped set up 1963's "children's crusade" in Birmingham, Alabama—a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. He left the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Bevel was convicted of incest in 2008. He died in Springfield, Virginia, later that same year.

Early Life

James Luther Bevel was born on October 19, 1936, in the rural town of Itta Bena, in central Mississippi. He shared his parents' home with 16 siblings. Growing up, James Bevel spent time working in the steel mills of Cleveland, Ohio. He also served a brief stint in the U.S. Naval Reserve, joining in 1954 and leaving in 1955.

While working as a singer, Bevel felt called to another path. He became a Baptist minister in 1959. He also started studying at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee.

Civil Rights Activist

After learning about nonviolent methods of social activism at Tennessee's Highlander Folk School and taking a student activist training course, Bevel began staging sit-in protests against segregated Nashville businesses. Along with John Lewis and Diane Nash, Bevel became a leading activist in the Nashville student movement, and helped found a civil rights group called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.

Bevel and Nash married in 1961, the same year that he graduated from seminary school. The following year, the couple left Nashville for Albany, Georgia. There, they continued to fight against racial prejudice and the segregation of African Americans.

In 1963, Bevel became a director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He convinced King to allow students to participate in protest marches in Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrations that became known as the "children's crusade." Seeing African-American children be struck and arrested by police was instrumental in prompting greater public support for the entire Civil Rights Movement.

After moving to Chicago, Bevel still worked to spread the principles of nonviolent activism. He also extended his support to the anti-war movement, pushing King to speak out against the Vietnam War. Bevel continued to work closely with King, and was with him in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968—the day of King's assassination.

Continuing Activism

After King's death, Bevel remained with the SCLC for a time. However, he also began to tell people that James Earl Ray—the man convicted of killing King—was not the real assassin. Other upsetting episodes followed, such as Bevel coming up with a test of loyalty that consisted of making people drink his urine. Ultimately, the organization cut ties with Bevel.

During the 1980s, Bevel's politics veered toward the Republican Party. He became a supporter of Ronald Reagan's campaign for the presidency and a critic of affirmative action. He also worked with fringe presidential contender Lyndon LaRouche, joining his ticket as the vice presidential candidate in 1992. Bevel's activism additionally involved assisting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan with 1995's Million Man March.

Criminal Conviction and Death

After his marriage to Nash ended, Bevel married three other women. He was the father of 16 children, born to seven different women. One of his daughters, Aaralyn Mills, accused Bevel of molesting her as a child and having sex with her once in the 1990s, when she was a teenager. Bevel was convicted of incest in April 2008. On December 19, 2008, at the age of 72, he died of pancreatic cancer in Springfield, Virginia.

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