‘The civil rights movement was won by people, not processes’
Civil rights movement leader Rev. James Bevel, speaking to a group of Brattleboro Union High School students visiting Selma, Ala., in 2005.

‘The civil rights movement was won by people, not processes’

A teacher recalls an impromptu workshop by a civil rights leader who organized an event that set off a chain of events that led to landmark federal civil rights legislation — the same civil rights leader who was openly abusive to his wife and who would soon be charged and convicted of incest. In 2021, what do we make of this complicated legacy?

BRATTLEBORO — As a minister and a leader of the civil rights movement, Rev. James Bevel initiated, strategized, directed, and developed two of the major successes of the era: the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade and the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Campaign.

In 1963, Birmingham's Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth had invited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to Birmingham, one of the South's most heavily segregated cities. SCLC's leaders accepted a challenge.

“I assure you if you come to Birmingham, this movement can not only gain prestige, but really shake the country,” Rev. Shuttlesworth had told Dr. King.

But as the effort in Birmingham - code-named “Project C,” for “confrontation” - bogged down and seemed headed for failure, organizers recruited Bevel, one of the most energetic, charismatic, and skilled strategists in the movement.

Bevel, known for his brilliance, had joined the SCLC and made an agreement to work with Dr. King. He was a veteran in the movement going back to 1960 and his participation in the Nashville sit-ins.

He came to Birmingham with a new strategy for the action, which eventually became known as the Children's Crusade. Bevel's strategy was to get the Black community in Birmingham involved in the movement by getting their children involved.

“So a boy from high school, he gets the same effect in terms of being in jail, in terms of putting pressure on the city as his father,” he said. “There's no economic effect on the family because the father's still on the job.”

The recruitment of children was on. One of the students who joined the movement was Janice Wesley Kelsey, the subject of the first piece in this series in the Feb. 9 issue.

Kelsey and thousands of other students walked through the streets to protest segregation nonviolently and were eventually arrested. Eventually, the commissioner of public safety called for dogs and fire hoses to control the demonstrating young people, horrifying the country.

By May 10, 38 days after Project C began, the SCLC reached an agreement with the business community. Rev. Shuttlesworth had been right. The movement in Birmingham won a much-needed victory and gained national attention.

There were repercussions. A bomb exploded outside the hotel room of Rev. King, but he had already left Birmingham. As a large crowd gathered, the Alabama state police moved in and began beating Black bystanders with clubs and rifles. In response, angry Black people rioted and set fire to several buildings.

Over the next few weeks, the riots that began in Birmingham spread to other cities. Racial tensions gripped the country, and President John F. Kennedy was moved to action.

On June 11, Kennedy declared civil rights a moral issue, declaring that “the events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”

This reaction would lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson after Kennedy's 1963 assassination.

* * *

I organized a field study to Alabama for the spring of 2005. I planned stops in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma. In Selma, I arranged for us to meet with veterans of the Selma to Montgomery March, the George Washington Carver neighborhood, Brown Chapel AME Church, the First Baptist Church, the Voting Rights Museum, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

We would travel the route of the march. We would stop at a memorial beside the highway to a Detroit housewife and activist, Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered. We would stop in Hayneville, Ala., where Jonathan Daniels, of Keene, N.H., had been murdered in a store by an unpaid special deputy with a shotgun and a pistol in a holster.

As we arrived at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, fellow teacher Tim Kipp, who was driving one of the vans, and I pulled up to the curb and saw a man standing nearby.

“Tim, that's Rev. Bevel,” I said.

“No, it isn't,” he replied.

“Tim, I'm telling you, that is Bevel.”

“No, it isn't.”

“Well, I'm going to go find out,” I said.

“Rev. Bevel?” I asked, extending my hand.

“Yes,” he confirmed.

Bevel invited us into the building that was right next to the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. In we went - an opportunity like this was not to be missed. Bevel proceeded to conduct a workshop with us, without notes. He used a whiteboard to accentuate the points he made.

On that day, Bevel was 69 years old. He stood, often pacing. His wife, Erica Henry, age 22, sat.

Bevel spoke with great energy, alternately raising and lowering his voice to make a point. He would begin several of his statements with a quotation from the Bible, then turn to Henry, and bellow, “Read it!”

She would quickly shuffle the pages of her Bible, quickly find his reference, and begin quoting the passage.

Bevel would then cut her off and complete the passage from memory.

* * *

While we were there, Bevel challenged the students. He questioned them, and they responded.

He outlined four principles of a life lived in a nonviolent manner.

The first principle: “I will not violate the dignity of others.”

“You have heard, 'You shall not kill' and 'Whoever killed should be liable to the judgment,'” he said. “But I say to you: 'Don't be angry, don't insult, and don't even call a person a fool.'”

The students of the nonviolent movement had to take this first principle seriously. Not only was it the cardinal principle of the movement, but it was a secret weapon in the fight for equality. It removes one's fear of people.

The second principle: “I will not compromise my integrity.”

“To be an American don't mean you go to a ball game, eat baloney,” Bevel told us. “No. It means that you hold this principle very sacred and very serious and you give your life and your sacred honor for this principle. Because that's what it is to be in America - without violence.

“I will not compromise, man. I'm here on Earth for purpose, and I have to be about that purpose.”

The third principle: “When I make a decision, it will be in the interest of all.”

“Now, this keeps you from having these old back-room-in-the-basement meetings. Because you intend to make decisions in the interest of all people, you didn't come with no assumption of enemies,” he said. “I am on Earth to serve the interests of all of the living people and the future generations. And that's what I intend to do.”

Bevel's fourth principle: “When I take an action it will serve everybody.”

“This was a principle that comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Don't insult. Don't be angry. Don't call people fools. A high standard makes you a thinker. Everything hinges on my honesty and my integrity. I can guarantee the outcome if I maintain this position.

“The question is, what was the outcome? Did you get a just and equitable outcome?”

In his conclusion, Bevel challenged the students.

“You guys got to get this done, y'all hear me? Don't think you're too small to do that.

“If you weren't capable of doing that, God wouldn't have you here at this time. You are here at this time. That's why God got you here. You got to be bold, don't be trying to fit into the old mode. You are the intellectual parents of the nation.

“We have to engage this sexual brokenness and family - let's correct that. And you have the power to make those corrections.

“So don't get scared of me. You'll be right. Thank you for listening.”

* * *

After our group left, students and teachers alike agreed that Bevel's treatment of his wife had been offensive, boorish, demeaning, and disrespectful.

They found some of his other opinions difficult to reconcile as well.

“My recollection of that talk was that [he had] a vision for unity,” student Carolyn Wesley would remark decades later.

She recalled that Bevel described a vision of “family units of men and women praying together,” with groups of these “chosen families” coming together, “separate from national and tribal dynamics.”

“And of course, in Vermont, we were in the midst of the civil unions and marriage debate,” she recalled.

She approached Bevel and asked him if his vision would include a place for same-sex couples.

“He said that it wouldn't,” she said.

She called it “an eye-opener for me about solidarity intersectionality” that someone like Bevel, “who had been such a freedom fighter when it came to racial justice wasn't at that place when it came to LGBTQ rights.”

“Of all the conversations we had with civil rights leaders on that trip, this was the one that stuck with me over time,” Wesley recalled recently.

“I didn't know anything about his history at the time, some of which would come out subsequently, but I remember how clear what I was witnessing, in that dynamic between him and his wife, [Erica Henry] on the stage did not speak to me about my understanding of civil rights or justice or relations between people.

“I have the memory of their dynamic and how uncomfortable it made me feel as a young woman witnessing it and the cognitive dissonance between having been introduced to someone as a champion of justice and seeing that dynamic play out.”

* * *

In 2005, one of Bevel's daughters accused him of incest.

In 2007, he was charged with the crime and was tried and convicted. On Oct. 15, 2008 was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released on bond within three days because he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on Dec. 19, 2008.

This chapter of Bevel's life has created some very interesting and controversial challenges in teaching high schoolers the civil rights movement during the 21st century. Do his predations diminish everything he did during the movement?

Ultimately, I taught my students about the movement and only at the end of the unit would I inform them of the behavior for which Bevel was convicted.

They were disgusted.

Bevel has always been a contentious figure in the civil rights movement. Even during the 1960s, other clergy members and the members of organizations like NAACP and SCLC were aware of his “womanizing.”

Bevel's peers lost respect for him - but they also recognized his talents and the contributions he could and did make. With the Children's Crusade and his contributions to the nonviolent actions in Birmingham, he was responsible for a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.

In the end, it's incumbent upon an instructor to balance the enormity of Bevel's contribution to the modern civil rights movement against the limits of him being a severely flawed individual - one who was capable of shortsighted attitudes toward other marginalized people, of humiliating his wife in front of a school group, and of inflicting acts of evil and violence on his own child.

During our visit, Bevel himself had some thoughts about humility that, in hindsight, speak to his own legacy.

“The civil rights movement was won by people, not processes,” he told us. “You can get carried away with your own ego, personality. Stop thinking, 'Oh, man, I was a fantastic guy.'”

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