King Adviser James Bevel, 72; Incest Sentence Clouded Legacy
By Alexander Remington Washington Post December 20, 2008 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/19/AR2008121903432.html?wpisrc=newsletter
The Rev. James L. Bevel, 72, a fiery top lieutenant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a force behind civil rights campaigns of the 1960s whose erratic behavior and conviction on incest charges tarnished his legacy, died in Virginia on Dec. 19 of pancreatic cancer.
Sherrilynn Bevel, a daughter, said he died at her home in
"Jim Bevel was Martin Luther King's most influential aide," said civil rights historian David J. Garrow. He cited Rev. Bevel's "decisive influence" on the
Rev. Bevel, an ordained Baptist minister, came to prominence while he was Alabama project coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization led by King.
In the early 1960s, the SCLC campaigned to desegregate Birmingham's downtown stores, which led police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor to respond with police attack dogs and fire hoses at full blast against the peaceful protesters.
Over the objections of King and his other advisers, Rev. Bevel rallied youngsters in
On May 2, 1963, the children began marching from the
However, violence persisted in
Afterward, Rev. Bevel proved a key figure in the 1965 march from
Rev. Bevel and activist Bernard LaFayette Jr. went to meet with
The chain of events touched off by the police violence that ensued -- all captured on national television -- culminated in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
All through this period, Rev. Bevel was respected as a preacher as much as a strategist. In an interview, Jesse Jackson called him a "creative genius," while
Wearing a yarmulke on his head in honor of Old Testament prophets, Rev. Bevel won arguments among King's inner circle by quoting the Bible. He once asked activist John Lewis, now a
Rev. Bevel grew active in the anti-war movement, once suggesting an "international peace army" to unite civil rights and antiwar activists. He had a great effect on King's thinking, notably urging King to confront the Vietnam War more directly.
King's final Sunday sermon, at Washington National Cathedral, focused on the war; days later, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated in
But Rev. Bevel was forced out of the SCLC for his disturbing personal behavior. Lewis wrote in his memoir "Walking With the Wind" that Rev. Bevel once cloistered himself in a hotel room with
More publicly, Rev. Bevel also embarrassed many in the movement with his support of claims of innocence by the late King assassin James Earl Ray.
"Bevel had so much hope, so much optimism," Lewis told the
James Luther Bevel was born Oct. 19, 1936, in the farming community of Itta Bena, Miss., also the birthplace of Marion Barry, the D.C. Council member and former mayor. He was one of 17 children born to a sharecropper father and a mother who frequently beat the children.
His early life included stints in the Navy and work as a doo-wop singer. He disbanded the group to enter the ministry and graduated in 1961 from
After King's death, Rev. Bevel fell into a long association with fringe movements. He was the 1992 vice presidential running mate of independent candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., who was then in a federal prison serving a sentence for mail fraud and income tax evasion.
Rev. Bevel returned to the headlines for helping Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan conceive the 1995 Million Man March.
Rev. Bevel was married four times, including once to activist Diane Nash. He fathered 16 children with seven women.
In April, a
At the time of his conviction, Rev. Bevel accused people of plotting against him. "I'm a social scientist," he said. "Who are these people? Are they communist guys? Who is trying to destroy me?"
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.
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