Rev. James Bevel

Reverend James BevelIn 1962, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend James Bevel met in Atlanta, Georgia.  They agreed to work together to end segregation; eliminate discrimination in housing, education, and employment; establish voting rights for all Americans, and end unjust wars.  Each of these men had studied the teaching of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of India who promoted nonviolent means to gain Indian independence from the British Empire.  

Both King and Bevel were committed to using the teachings of Gandhi to end injustice in the U.S.  King had charisma and an ability to communicate the hopes and dreams of diverse people.  Bevel understood the teaching of Gandhi and had "hands-on" experience applying nonviolent strategies to motivate people and create change.  Each brought a different set of skills to the table, yet they were united in their commitment to change America.  Together, they were a powerful duo, though Reverend Bevel largely stayed in the background.

Many believe that King needed a strategic planner like Bevel in order to be an effective leader.  Remember, we are talking about Jim Crow and the "old south."  Segregation was deeply engrained in the fabric of our nation.  It was direct, with the full-force of the law in the south.  In the north, it was still present, but lingered subtly beneath the surface.  Having someone help formulate plans and think through strategies allowed Dr. King to be an effective communicator and leader.

Generations of African Americans had lived under oppressive conditions in America.  First as slaves and then as "free" people.  The United States was founded on slavery, the Civil War literally tore families and the nation apart.  The scars from the war and the corruption of reconstructed ensured that African Americans were not allowed to live as equal participants in the American Dream.  In many ways, America has never fully put the Civil War behind it.

Overcoming the powerful forces of oppression must have seemed an insurmountable tasks.  Together, King and Bevel complimented each other and found the strength to continue to work towards the objectives they agreed on when they meet in 1962.

Bevel drew strength from the teachings of Gandhi.  One quote that particularly moved him was when Gandhi said, "It's not the masses that makes a movement work.  If just one person can maintain integrity on the question, that's what makes a movement work.

Bevel know that he could maintain integrity on the question of ending segregation.  He understood the difference lying and honesty, between acting true to convictions and acting on ego, and between being motivated to help others and just going through those motions.  

Bevel knew in his heart that "if what Gandhi said is right, I can fill that slot in a movement."

Perhaps the best illustration of how Bevel lived by the wisdom of Gandhi is his key role in the Children's March.  Getting children involved in a potentially hostile confrontation with police was a bold idea -- one that many were not ready for.

Adults were not ready to march; the children were.  Adults had too much to lose; the children had so much to gain.  Adults were burdened with fear, children did not have the same burdens to carry.  The nation had silently watched adults be beaten back, even killed, when they demanded justice.  The world was not ready to accept the abuse of children simply because they wanted to participate in the American dream.  

Many believe that the Civil Rights Movement would not have been successful without the shameful images of police brutality directed at children.  When the jails in Birmingham were full of thousands of children, the nation could no longer hold its silence.

Reverend Bevel stayed true to his convictions.  When Dr. King and others started to doubt the strategy of having children participate in protests, Bevel calmed their fears.  He confirmed that people were ready to move forward.  Then, he worked to build on the momentum of this consensus.  

With hindsight, it is clearer to see that the Children's Crusade was right -- an important part of the process for constructive change.  At the time, it must have been a difficult decision to go forward with it.  

Great people change the world by standing by their convictions.  Reverend James Bevel is a living example of the power integrity. 

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In Their Own Words / More Resources


Biography:  Reverend James Luther Bevel

Personal: Born October 19, 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi

Education: American Baptist Theological Seminary (Nashville, Tennessee)

Profession: Preacher, Philosopher, Nonviolent Scientist, Social Architect, Minister, Writer, Statesman, Public Lecturer, Singer, Pastor (New York, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois)

Objective: Desegregate downtown department store lunch counters and local movie theaters.

“The adults (mostly ministers) of the NCLC met with the students and tried to persuade them to postpone the demonstration for a couple of days . . . James Bevel said, ‘I’m sick and tired of waiting. If you asked us to wait until next week, then next week something would come up and you’d say wait until the next week and maybe we’d never get our freedom.’ “ —Aldon Morris. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 206

“Nash, Lewis, Bevel and the other students emerged from jail as heroes who had forced a southern city to grant one of the long denied requests of the established civil rights groups.” —Taylor Branch. Parting the Waters, p. 280

Objective: End segregation of interstate bus travel.

“CORE organized the Freedom Rides. The CORE group rode as far as Alabama, where they were firebombed. When CORE called off the rides the Nashville group immediately saw the implications of this stoppage and organized the continuation of the Freedom Rides.” —Randy Kryn. “James Bevel: The Strategist of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement”

“Bevel became the chairman of the local group in Nashville. It was his job to appoint the people to continue riding.” —Pat Watters. Down To Now, p. 102

Objective: Desegregate public facilities throughout Mississippi and secure the Right-to-Vote.

“Bevel felt convinced to build a movement in his home state [Mississippi] and wanted to go back there to work.” —James Forman. The Making of Black Revolutionaries, p. 160

“Bevel and other field workers spent much of their time canvassing: going from shack to shack, driving from one hamlet to another, trying to persuade blacks to go to the mass meeting, attend the voter registration workshops, and ultimately to go through the unnerving, often terrifying ordeal of going to the registrar’s office applying for the vote. The work required stamina, persistence and nerves of steel. Bevel excelled in it.” —Adam Fairclough. To Redeem the Soul of America, p. 92

Objective: Desegregate public accommodations and correct discriminatory hiring practices.

“In early May, at a critical juncture when King wavered because of pressure from the Kennedys to hold off further demonstrations, Bevel and [Isaac] Reynolds, ignoring King’s wishes, slipped the children out of the church and marched them downtown on the most brilliant maneuver of the campaign.” —Meier and Rudwick. CORE: A Study In the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968

“Looking back, it is clear that the introduction of Birmingham’s children into the campaign was one of the wisest moves we made.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait, p. 97

“The Birmingham Movement was blessed by the fire and excitement brought to it by the young people. Jim Bevel had the inspiration of setting D-Day, when students would go to jail in historic numbers.” —Ibid. p. 99

“I think his most significant mobilization was here in Birmingham when he [James Bevel] recruited the children from the public schools.” —Wyatt Tee Walker interview with R. Kryn, 6/2/88

Objective: Consolidate small sit-in wins across the south and the major Birmingham victory.

“Nobody knows it, but the [1963] March on Washington was directly parallel to our understanding of what Gandhi did in India. We were sitting around, talking about how are we going to unite all of these little sit-in movements across the south into one national movement and James Bevel said ‘Let’s have a salt march to the sea.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Let’s march on Washington.’ And we didn’t do it the same way Gandhi did. But we accomplished the same purpose.” —Andrew Young, TV interview, June 2, 1977

“King’s interest in mass action in the nation’s capitol stemmed in part from an idea that had circulated among some of the movement’s younger staff workers, such as James Bevel and Ike Reynolds.” —David Garrow. Bearing the Cross, p. 266

“The March on Washington was Jim Bevel’s idea.” —Bernard LaFayette, interview with R. Kryn, 9/18/87

Objective: Force Alabama and the U.S. government to uphold the constitutional right to vote for all.

“My former husband and I . . . deliberately made a choice. We weren’t going to stop working . . . until Alabama Blacks had the right to vote.” —Diane Nash-Bevel interview in Voices of Freedom, p. 173

“James Bevel spent some time walking alone outside the Torch Motel . . . Suddenly he had an idea that he felt sure would bring home the situation as nothing they had tried before: They would march to Montgomery [from Selma].” —Charles Fager. Selma 1965, p. 86

“Dr. King confirmed that Bevel’s plan for a march to Montgomery had become official.”
—Charles Fager. Ibid., p. 86

“Dr. King’s speech [in Montgomery] was impressive as usual, but the remarks of James Bevel got closest to the whole point of the struggle. Waving up at the capitol, Bevel said, ‘Those police up there on the steps know we belong inside. Thirty-four percent of the seats in there belong to us. We don’t want these steps. We want the capitol.’” —Robert H. Brisbane. Black Activism

Objective: End discriminatory practices in renting and selling of housing.

“Bevel went to Chicago, where his restless, brilliant strategic mind found a more promising situation, and began laying the groundwork for what was to become Dr. King’s massive . . . open-housing campaign there in the summer of 1966.” —Fager, Selma 1965 pp. 169-70

“Rev. James Bevel, who directed the voter registration drive in Selma for the (SCLC), had come to Chicago. He subsequently became King’s Chicago project director.” —Lionel Lokos, House Divided, p. 234, 1968

“With King in Chicago-and Bevel out-Kinging King—the city of Chicago announced a massive crackdown on building violations.” -Ibid., p. 236

“For weeks King and Raby searched for the issue that would turn on the nation . . . Finally, King and cerebral top Chicago aide, James Bevel, decided on open housing . . . they selected ‘the campaign to end slums’ as their motto.” —Barbara Reynolds. Jesse Jackson, The Man, The Movement, The Myth

“King himself was not in complete control of the plans of the SCLC. Decisions in Chicago were being made by the charismatic Jim Bevel and by Andrew Young, who controlled the finances of the movement. Dr. King, flying in and out, went along their strategies.”
—Eugene Kennedy. Himself! The Life and Times of Mayor Richard Daley

Objective: To bring about an end to U.S. involvement in what was considered an illegal and unjust war.

“James Bevel showed up on King’s doorstep. Bevel had come to discuss the Vietnam War . . . Bevel asked King for a leave of absence to take the ‘Spring Mobe’ position. Advocating nonviolence to American Blacks at home morally required insisting that the U.S. practice it internationally.” —David Garrow. Bearing the Cross, p. 543

“On January 27, 1967, the Rev. James Bevel went on leave of absence from the SCLC to become national director of the spring mobilization to End the War in Vietnam.” —Lionel Lokos. House Divided, p. 376

“King, who had not yet spoken out forcefully against the war and had never taken part in an antiwar demonstration . . . felt a strong moral compulsion to join the antiwar ranks, but I am convinced that he finally yielded on both these points when James Bevel and I convinced him that the mobilization was going to be a tremendous success with or without him, and that he was in danger of letting history pass him by.” —Dave Dellinger. More Power Than We Know, p. 115

“It bears repeating that the man who organized the march on the Pentagon in October, 1967, was the same man who had organized the Fifth Avenue parade in April-the Rev. James Bevel.” —Lionel Lokos, Ibid., p. 402


Objective: Demand for jobs or a guaranteed annual income. 

“If Dr. King had lived, there would never have been a Poor People’s Campaign.” —Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy interview in LOOK Magazine, April 15, 1969, p. 29

“Dr. King was forced to wrestle over the campaign plan up until the time he told Ralph Abernathy his final decision against going ahead, probably no one else, except for his wife, Coretta, knew he had decided not to lead the poor to Washington.” —Andrew Young. Ibid., p. 30

“No one was really enthusiastic about the Poor People’s Campaign” . . . “Jim Bevel and Jesse Jackson in particular remained openly opposed.” —David Garrow. Ibid., p. 616

“The Poor People’s Campaign, whether it was a total failure or a qualified success, has sent the organization’s standing plunging to a new, all-time low.” —George Goodman. Ibid., p. 29


“February 1969, at a closed staff meeting during which SCLC leaders mapped strategy for the spring and summer . . . James Bevel won the hearts if not the minds of SCLC leaders when he explained the details of his [new] proposal and his moral reasoning. [His proposal was] 1) To insist that James Earl Ray be given a fair and impartial trial; 2) An international pilgrimage for Ralph Abernathy and Mrs. King asking governments to cut back spending for military armaments; and 3) To address the question of inferior education, with the Philadelphia public school system as the target.” -George Goodman. Ibid. p. 31

“Two SCLC attorneys argued against the Bevel proposals - not on moral grounds, but on the basis of practicality and because, as a staffer said, ‘There are too many Negroes in this country who want blood too.’” -Goodman. Ibid., p. 31

“Ralph Abernathy did not object to the proposals as presented in Atlanta . . . Reportedly, he rebuked Bevel in response to a plea from Dr. King’s father. Abernathy censored Bevel because the anguished father of an old friend asked him to.” -Goodman. Ibid., p.31

“Bevel fought for these three actions so vocally that he was forced to leave SCLC. The heart had been taken out of the organization . . . after King’s death and Bevel’s departure, the group seems to have become a ceremonial shadow of its former self.” -Kryn. Ibid.


After his departure from SCLC, Rev. Bevel pursued studies into the origin of violence and poverty. In 1969 he developed an award winning mental health program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, which led in 1970 to the development of the Making A Nation (MAN) Clinic. It was this clinical research which produced the Nonviolent Clinical Process for eradicating ignorance, poverty and disease.

In 1984, Rev. Bevel ran for Congress (7th Congressional District) winning 33% of the vote on the platform of education and precinct council development modeled upon the Nonviolent Clinical Process. This platform has never been abandoned, and he is still focused on these two issues to the present day. His constitutional work in the 1980s and 1990s led him to develop SEED (Students for Education and Economic Development), through which he addressed the issues of violence and poverty by creating economic development projects based in the Southside area of Chicago.

Through SEED, he worked with the Unification Church in defense of their right to religious freedom and formed the All-African Congress which organized efforts to negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela. In 1992 he ran for Vice-President of the United States with Lyndon LaRouche. In 1994-95 he served as the ‘angel’ who brought the idea of the Day of Atonement to Minister Louis Farrakhan which became the Million Man March.

Rev. Bevel served as the pastor of MAAT Village Church of Civilization in Selma, Alabama. In Selma, Alabama he also wrote a weekly syndicated column, “From Revolution to the Renaissance” and broadcasted a weekly radio program.

By Bill Breitsprecher
All Rights Reserved

Bombingham " / March on Washington
Church Bombing / Rev. James Bevel
In Their Own Words / More Resources