Dead, James Luther Bevel on December 19, 2008 at the age of 72, he was a leader of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement who, as the Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), initiated, strategized, directed, and developed SCLC’s three major successes of the era: the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, and the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement.
Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi on October 19, 1936, Bevel grew up and worked on a cotton plantation, received schooling in Mississippi and Cleveland, Ohio, and served in the U.S. Navy for a time.
He attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1957 to 1961, and while attending college re-read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You (he’d first read it while in the Navy, where the book led directly to Bevel’s decision to leave the military).
Bevel also read several of Mohandas Gandhi’s books and newspapers while taking workshops on Gandhi’s philosophy and nonviolent techniques taught off-campus by Rev. James Lawson of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
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 the demonstrations resulted in Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth being arrested and jailed while marching, James Bevel came up with the idea of using children in the campaign.
He spent weeks strategizing, organizing and educating Birmingham’s elementary and high school students in the philosophy and techniques of nonviolence.
Bevel then directed the students, 50 at a time, to march out of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church and walk to Birmingham’s City Hall to talk to Birmingham Mayor Art Hanes about segregation in the city.
Almost 1,000 of them were arrested on the first day. When they continued marching out of the church the following day, City Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered that German Shepherd dogs and high-pressure fire hoses be used on the children.
The Selma Voting Rights Movement officially began in early January 1965, grew, and had some minor successes. Then, on February 16, 1965, a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, went with his mother and grandfather to participate in a night-time march led by Reverend C. T. Vivian to protest the movement related jailing of James Orange in Marion, Alabama.
After the street lights were turned off by Alabama State Troopers, Jackson was shot in the stomach while defending his mother from an attack by the Troopers as she in turn was defending her father. Jackson died a few days later.
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.