Credited by Martin Luther King with initiating the Children’s Crusade during the Birmingham Campaign of 1963, James Bevel emerged as a civil rights leader from the ranks of the Nashville, Tennessee, student movement. Bevel was at King’s side during many of the major campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was at the Lorraine Motel at the time of King’s assassination in 1968.
Bevel was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, on 19 October 1936. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1954 and 1955 before entering the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1959, and went on to pastor the Chestnut Grove Baptist Church. During this period Bevel joined with fellow seminarian John Lewis, Diane Nash from Fisk University, and Vanderbilt’s James Lawson in the Nashville movement to initiate a local sit-in campaign in early February 1960. That same year, Bevel and the other Nashville activists attended the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University. Bevel and Nash helped lead the Freedom Rides in 1961 and married later that year. In 1962 Bevel left SNCC to become Mississippi field secretary for SCLC.
Bevel and Nash moved to Alabama in the spring of 1963 and played leading roles, along with Dorothy Cotton, Andrew Young, Bernard Lee, Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, in the campaign to desegregate Birmingham. As the number of adult participants willing to go to jail dwindled, Bevel began recruiting black students from Birmingham’s high schools, colleges, and churches to participate in the protests. Mass demonstrations by students triggered a violent police response that brought national attention to Birmingham. One week later, city leaders reached an accord with movement leaders.
As he prepared to work on the Alabama voter registration movement that would later culminate in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, Bevel informed King that more staff was needed to build a nonviolent movement in Alabama. (L to R) Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, King, and Coretta Scott King confer with James Bevel, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s vanguard organizer in Selma, during the last leg of the Selma to Montgomery March, 25 March 1965. Courtesy of Adele Saunders.
Bevel feared that activists who were not committed to nonviolence were conducting ‘‘demonstration[s] for the sake of demonstrating,’’ and that these tactics resulted in ‘‘rioting and deaths.’’ He advised, ‘‘In order to off-set these trends, the non-violent must project and execute a program that will [allow] more Negroes to become convinced of the effectiveness of non-violence and the principles of it.’’ Bevel further implored King to put ‘‘the whole non-violent staff’’ on the Alabama project (Bevel, 13 April 1964). His pressure paid off, and at the May 1964 executive staff meeting King recommended that SCLC increase its presence in Alabama. Bevel led this effort as the head of SCLC’s Direct Action Department.
Bevel moved to Chicago in 1965 to begin laying the groundwork for a nonviolent northern civil rights drive. Bevel went on to become national director of the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam in 1967 and, the following year, he joined King in the effort to win the Memphis sanitation workers strike. Bevel left SCLC after King’s death and became involved in the Republican Party and the 1995 Million Man March. He passed away on 19 December 2008 from pancreatic cancer.
Bevel, Memo to King, 13 April 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
Honey, Going Down Jericho Road, 2007.
Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 1998.