Randy Kryn: Movement Revision Research Summary Regarding James Bevel

scott @ Sat, 2005-11-19 19:07

As a historian and journalist, I've worked in the field of 1960s Civil Rights Movement history from 1983-1990, in 1995, and from1997 (on and off) to the present, specifically focusing on and researching the career of James L. Bevel, the Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Early in this research I concluded that Rev. Bevel initiated, strategized and directed each of SCLC's now-almost-legendary movements. Further conclusions:James Bevel taught most of the people who carried out SCLC's '60s movements in the movement cities the 'how-to's' and philosophies of functional nonviolence; that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. James Bevel made up the first-tier of the movement, and that the correct historical viewpoint and academic study of that era will include the reality and the legacy of the King-Bevel team.

Rev. James Bevel's Role in the 1960s Movements:

In short, in 1962--after civil rights activist James Lawson suggested to Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. that they issue an invitation and meet with James Bevel--Dr. King and Rev. Bevel met in Dr. King's office in Atlanta, Georgia.

In that historic meeting Dr. King and Rev. Bevel joined forces. They agreed to work together to end segregation in America, to obtain voting rights for all adults, to open the nation's housing, to work-on and correct various issues of miseducation and war, to use nonviolence fully to achieve those goals, and to ask for monetary donations only if they were actually working on a correctly run and defined movement.

So contrary to past accounts, Rev. Bevel never did act as Dr. King's 'aide' or 'lieutenant'. For at the time of their agreement each had already undergone an intense study of Gandhian nonviolence; each had experienced several years of day-by-day decision making in front-line social movements; and each had already learned, matured, and succeeded within the framework of history making events.

By 1962 it had become apparent to Dr. King and others that King could inspire, and that he could calmly explain a country's errors and a people's hopes to a nation of diverse people. But he hadn't and couldn't--and knew that he couldn't--strategize and run a full-fledged nonviolent movement. Dr. King learned that the only person in America who had shown both an understanding of functional nonviolence and the ability to put it into practical action was Rev. James Bevel.

Martin Luther King Jr. needed James Bevel as much as Bevel--a young firebrand with a no-holds-barred speaking style--needed King. For together they could, and did, successfully mix their skills and personalities; team-up the different sets of people each could communicative most effectively with; and achieve almost all of the agreed-upon agenda worked out in their 1962 meeting.

Earlier, Rev. Bevel, while a student in Nashville, Tennessee, had been taught off-campus by James Lawson--then a member of SCLC's field staff--and by Myles Horton and the staff of the Highlander Folk School (Bevel calls Horton "The father of the civil rights movement"--with good reason once you timeline who took his classes and when). Bevel then worked with fellow students Bernard Lafayette, Diane Nash, John Lewis, and many others in the 1960 Nashville Lunch-Counter Sit-In; helped them and others found SNCC--the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; directed SNCC's successful 1961 Open Theater Movement; and joined Diane Nash--who initiated the action--and their other Nashville students in continuing the 1961 Freedom Ride.

During their month-long stay in jail at the conclusion of the Freedom Ride, Jim Bevel co-initiated the well-known Mississippi Freedom Movement with Bernard Lafayette. Bevel then strategized and directed this movement, and also directed the action in Greenwood, Mississippi; recruited and trained such activists as Fannie Lou Hamer; and co-founded Mississippi's movement newspaper with Medgar Evers.

Then, after joining Dr. King and SCLC in 1962, James Bevel:

Initiated the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade
Strategized the " " " "
Directed the " " " "
Called the 1963 March On Washington
Co-Initiated [with Diane Nash] SCLC's Alabama Project
Initiated the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement
Strategized the " " " " "
Directed the " " " " "
Initiated the Selma-to-Montgomery March
Directed the " " " "
Initiated SCLC's role in the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement
Strategized the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement
Directed the " " " "
Joined Coretta Scott King, David Dellinger, and others in talking Dr. King into actively opposing the Vietnam War, then
Chaired & directed the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in 1967, and
Initiated the 1967 March on the Pentagon

Rev. Bevel acted on several of these major history changing events with a quick "second to the motion" by his wife Diane Nash, arguably--and seemingly easily proven--the most important female participant in the Civil Rights era.

Results of Maintaining Integrity in Nonviolent Movements

The first task James Bevel choose for himself when the Nashville students decided to experiment with nonviolence pertained to a quote he'd read from Mohandas Gandhi. In Jim Bevel's words:

"As I kept reading Gandhi I came across something which, if true, answered my childhood question, 'What can I personally do to make a difference in ending segregation?'

"It's not the masses that makes a movement work," Gandhi said. 'If just one person can maintain integrity on the question, that's what makes a movement work.'

"Okay," I thought, "I can agree in my heart that I can maintain integrity on the question of ending segregation. I don't know what else I can do, but I know the difference between lying and honesty, between a genuine act and an ego-trip, and between really acting on the health, interests, rights and needs of the people and pretending to do that. So if what Gandhi said is right, I can fill that slot in a movement."

This may end up as one of Jim Bevel's most recognized and important contribution to the success of the 1960s movements. For at a few key junctures when Dr. King and others attempted to change agreed-upon plans by objecting or trying to stop James Bevel's actions, Rev. Bevel, remembering Gandhi's words, persisted.

An example of this occurred during the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade when John Kennedy's administration asked Dr. King to stop using the children. Dr. King agreed, and asked Rev. Bevel, who had organized, taught, and led the children's campaign, to call it off . Instead, Bevel escalated. He first got King's okay to escalate, and then began organizing the children for a march up the highway to Washington to talk to Kennedy. (See the addendum of my paper printed in Prof. David Garrow's 1989 book "We Shall Overcome, Volume II" for a more detailed description of this action and how it led directly to the 1963 March On Washington and the 1964 Civil Rights Act)

Another instance of SCLC's reluctance to follow their Director of Direct Action involves the Voting Rights Movement:

As reported in several sources, immediately after a bomb in Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four young girls attending Sunday School on September 15, 1963, Rev. Bevel and Diane Nash, doing movement work in North Carolina at the time, wrote up a plan for an Alabama Project. This plan would direct the anger and hate over the murders into a very quick Southernwide strategy to obtain the right to vote. Jim Bevel telephoned key people in SCLC, SNCC, the NAACP and CORE after Nash had already left to present their plan to Dr. King--calling them to explain the reasoning of his simpler and more effective plan-- but none of these groups or any others would join it. So Bevel, Nash, and Birmingham activist James Orange started to organize the Alabama Project. SCLC's national staff did not join it until over a year later, when they finally agreed to work on the Alabama Project and it became known as the Selma Voting Rights Movement.

During the "end-game" of that action, the night before the March 7, 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. King--who had a meeting in Atlanta and planned to miss the march--and SCLC chief-of-staff Andrew Young became concerned that not enough people had shown up in Selma. They tried to talk Rev. Bevel out of his plan. But Jim Bevel proceeded with the agreed-upon action, resulting in the famous walk across the Pettus Bridge. There the group of marchers, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, met and received severe beatings from the Alabama Highway Patrol and the Selma police.

This event, America's "Bloody Sunday", led President Lyndon Baines Johnson to go before a nationally televised joint session of Congress to clearly articulate the definition and goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson then demanded the immediate writing and passage of a Voting Rights Act.

Another example. When the Selma Movement ended, James Bevel choose Chicago as the site of SCLC's Northern Campaign. When Dr. King and others in SCLC objected, Rev. Bevel then explained his reasoning to Dr. King, mainly that he realized during the Selma Movement that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) already had a group of trained nonviolent practitioners in place in Chicago. Again, Dr. King and SCLC's national staff followed Jim Bevel's advice.

An interesting note of how the Chicago Open Housing Movement ended [for rebuttals of this account, please see the rejoinders by Kale Williams and Jim Ralph], at least in James Bevel's viewpoint: Rev. Bevel, who directed SCLC's action in Chicago, recalls an agreement reached during its well-known Summit Conference. This agreement, quickly discussed at an off-the-record moment requested by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley--and apparently missed by most of the conference participants--occurred between Mayor Daley, Dr. King, James Bevel, Bill Berry, and Daley attorney William Ming.

Richard Daley, Bevel recalls, said that Ming would help advance open housing through the nation's court system, and that once it became law he, Daley, as Mayor, would set up a citywide commission to implement it. Daley said that he would then assist other mayors to do the same. But Richard Daley asked that these promises not be publicly announced, because he feared that by giving such a promise of assistance to the movement he might lose his political and even his physical life. Jim Bevel, taking Daley at his word, knew at that movement that the movement had ended--something Jim Bevel would not have agreed to do without it reaching a successful conclusion.

This agreement between Mayor Daley and the top-tier of SCLC, previously released in slightly different forms, becomes more fully reported here for the first time because the previous reports contained an error. In my earlier writings I'd taken James Bevel's words "private meeting" to mean just that, 'a private meeting', when he really meant "a discussion off the record during the conference". A thank you to historian James Ralph Jr. (author of "Northern Protest") and to Summit Conference participant Kale Williams (Chicago's AFSC chairman during the sixties) for strongly questioning my account, eventually forcing me to further clarify this with Rev. Bevel and to discover my mistake.

A few more words about the Chicago Movement. Since Jim Bevel, as SCLC's 1960s strategist and Director of Direct Action, considers this movement as much of a success as the movement in Nashville and the more publicly recognized movements in Birmingham and Selma, Chicago's "place" in movement history needs a higher level of historical recognition. Historian Taylor Branch's upcoming book will give a detailed look at the Chicago movement and its success, as will the upcoming 40th anniversary events, and I urge other historians and journalists to give it further attention. One way to do this would consist of more fully interviewing a few participants whose stories have also "slipped through the cracks" of research, notably David Jehnsen, Kale Williams, Mary Lou Finley, and the legacy of the late Bill Moyer--and to extensively reinterview noted '60s activist Bernard Lafayette.

As for Chicago '66 and its place in history, just as the Civil Rights Act followed the end of the Birmingham Movement by a few months, and the Voting Rights Act became voted in months after that movement had ended, ending legal segregation in housing came after the successful end of the Open Housing Movement. It took until 1968 for both the Supreme Court and Congress to remove this immense barrier, one of the last renments of racial segregation. But remove it they did, just as Dr. King, Richard Daley, James Bevel--movement activists from 1966, one way or another--had expected and worked towards.

I'll end this section with another point highlighting Jim Bevel's place as the '60s movement's strategist. Whenever SCLC went outside of Rev. Bevel's advice during the era--as they did with the St. Augustine action in 1964, the request for SCLC's help in Memphis in 1968, and the Poor People's Campaign (the latter two events also opposed by SCLC staff member and Bevel student Jesse Jackson)--they failed to achieve the desired results. James Bevel--probably uniquely among the participants of the era--knew what movement looked like and knew how to initiate, teach, and implement the data needed for a successful movement, and so he easily recognized that none of these three actions contained correct nonviolent movement strategy or, equally important, a constitutional basis. In fact, Rev. Bevel says that SCLC's national staff decided to go to St. Augustine to avoid becoming a part of the Alabama Project.

Research Emergence of James Bevel's role in U.S. history and further new data on the Selma to Montgomery March

Since 1968 James Bevel's legacy has emerged bit-by-bit. Although some recent books have started to edge towards the full credit Bevel deserves (and I think historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David Garrow, author of "Bearing The Cross" and other works, has possibly become aware of the full pattern), until the mid-1980s other participants in the 1960s movement hesitated to fully talk about Rev. Bevel's work. So in 1983, after reading a fund-raising paper by Bevel's former wife, Myeka, I began to extensively interview Rev. Bevel, and then did the research and conducted the interviews with other movement participants to ascertain if the then accepted historical record had major omissions and flaws.

In almost all instances, with very few minor exceptions, this research convinced me of Bevel's accurate memory of his prominent place in the events. I concluded that many of the books, documentaries, and feature films on the 1960s--and even such things as the numerous books listing prominent African-Americans--either failed to mention James Bevel, or had mistakenly limited their coverage of his role, because the sourced material from previous books and articles had themselves used inaccurate information.

Just one example: Several sources credited Selma activist Lucy Foster with initiating the Selma-to-Montgomery March. In interviews with many of the participants, I found that both Foster and Bevel had independently thought-up the idea (Foster built on Jim Bevel's already-in-place plan to organize a car caravan from Selma to Montgomery) but that Bevel did not know of Foster's idea until the mid-1980s. The data in the N.Y. Times accounts at the time and in such books as Charles Fager's "Selma 1965", giving the credit for the actual initiation and formation of the march to Rev. Bevel, proved accurate. In fact Charles Fager says in his recent book, "Eating Dr. King's Dinner", that Jim Bevel walked right into his room at [correction, 11/1/05: "walked into his room at Mrs. Amelia Boynton's home] a few minutes after coming up with the plan, awakening Fager and his wife to excitedly tell them about it. (This occurred, I recently learned from Rev. Bevel, just after Bevel had first told Selma activist Annie Lee Cooper, then working as the night manager of the Torch Motel, about his plan.)

The initiation of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and this may be the first time this story has appeared, occurred when Jim Bevel came up with the plan while walking around outside the Torch Motel late at night after his wife, Diane Nash, had told him that Jimmie Lee Jackson (shot almost a week earlier by an Alabama State Trooper after another trooper had turned the streetlights off during an evening voting rights demonstration) would soon die. Then, after also having an argument with Nash over her plans to divorce him--an argument where he physically shoved her onto the bed and stormed out the door-- Jim Bevel walked around and around the Torch Motel's lawn and the woods in back of it, walking in order to figure out a way to stop the murderous impulses which he knew would arise in the area's people once Jimmie Lee Jackson died. He says he had to find a nonviolent way to channel these upcoming violent impulses in others, as well as to use his own angry and hurt emotions and his violence towards Diane for something positive and redemptive, and he decided. . .

To take the people of the community and of the nation on a walk to Montgomery to ask Governor George Wallace just one question.

"Governor Wallace, did you do this? Did you order the lights turned off at the demonstration?"

The people did take the walk, and Jim Bevel and Dr. King did ask Governor Wallace that question--finding out that no, Wallace had known nothing about the demonstration beforehand. Yet that march, the march to Montgomery to calm the people and to give them time to think, also caused President Lyndon Johnson to think. Johnson then stood on the podium before Congress, both joined and ended the Selma movement at the same time, and proclaimed to the world, "We Shall Overcome."

A brief selection of quotes collected during my interviews, 1983-1990; 1995-1998

"The Bevel story does revise the history of the Civil Rights Movement and it needs to be told" ---- Robert St. John

"I don't think we would have had a movement without him. . .He played a very important role, and that role was translated into a successful movement" ---- Andrew Young

"Even the March on Washington was Jim Bevel's idea"
---- Bernard Lafayette

"I'd say 98% of the plans and activities in Selma were Bevel's. The Selma Movement was Bevel's baby."
---- James Orange

"We would have never gone to Selma, and there would not have been a Voting Rights Bill today if James Bevel had not conceived of the idea" "Jim was the originator of the idea of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Jim Bevel is the author of that." "Dr. King could not have done the things he did unless he had a James Bevel."
---- Ralph David Abernathy

"He was a great philosopher, an unbelievable philosopher."
---- Hosea Williams

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Related Quotes

Although I haven't yet gotten an interview with Jesse Jackson, who James Bevel mentored and later sponsored in SCLC, Jackson claimed in Ebony Magazine (August, 1967) that he was inspired by "Jesus, Malcolm X, James Bevel, and Dr. King."
Rev. Jackson later wrote of the '60s Civil Rights Movement: "Bevel was the real creative genius of that period."


For over 40 years the perceived and accepted view of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement missed much--maybe as much as half from the viewpoint of shared leadership--of the first-tier story. The King-Bevel team which brought this movement its successes exists as a historical fact.

The contributions Dr. King and Rev. Bevel designed and achieved caused the United States government to legally end segregation. Their movements--a series of events which brought about new social agreements and a new consciousness within America's citizens--later inspired women, environmentalists, gays, and other activists throughout the world to point out errors and unfairness, act upon trying to solve them, and then to gradually attain the benefits of reasonable alternative viewpoints within civilization's ever-changing information and activity flow.

In short, James Bevel created the contexts, and Dr. King told the world about them. Jim Bevel, in essence, wrote the plays, choose the theaters, and trained the actors. When he saw his students become ready to take the stage, he let them, and by that time they, truths to be told and lessons learned, knew exactly what to do. By simply knowing how to be responsible, honest, and loving, and deciding to act as both citizens of a constitutional nation and members of a nonviolent community, they became able to lead each other into history by simply taking a few walks down a handful of streets.

All of this changed the civilization. What once looked to America and the world as regrettable but normal--a regiment of institutionalized segregation--just seven short years later looked like insanity.

The healing had occurred.

Previous release of my research:
"James L. Bevel, the Strategist of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement" Self-published, 1984, then printed, with a 1988 addendum, in David Garrow's "We Shall Overcome, Volume II" (Carlson Publishing Co. 1989). The original paper had a few errors, almost all corrected in the 1988 addendum.
"1960s Nonviolent Technology and the Work of Student Leader and SCLC Strategist James Bevel" a lecture and academic presentation presented at the 1993 "Towards a History of the Sixties" conference in Madison, Wisconsin co-sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Research presented for the first time during this session includes SNCC activist Prathia Hall's initiation of the "I Have A Dream" speech as well as many large and small details of James Bevel's work.
A letter to the editor in the January 1, 1988 'Chicago Sun-Times', the first and--as of this data release on October 3, 2005--still the only accurate and semi-full major media mention of James Bevel's overall role in America's 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Though the Sun-Times edited the letter, it left in enough data on Bevel's accomplishments to make this a substantial document.
Various drafts and corrected edits of a full book, 1990-2005
Other early release of my research included several press releases sent from November, 1983 (a month after I met and began to research Rev. Bevel) through most of 1984. The only media use of these: the 'Chicago Independent Bulletin' printed these releases verbatim as headline news on Dec. 15, 1983; Jan. 26, 1984, and Feb. 2, 1984. During this time period many copies of my one-page paper "James L. Bevel: A Brief History" also began circulating.
In May of 2000 I emailed a short research summary, sent--as this one has gone--to historians; historical institutions, media editors, columnists, and reporters; and to other possibly interested people, including those named in the summary. The 2000 paper had no media coverage, although it elicited some discussion among historians. One reason I believe the James Bevel story hasn't yet found its true niche in historical and public consciousness--besides the fact that it may seem overwhelming--a form of "how did everyone miss this?" impulse--finds explanation below.

James Bevel's 1990s work

A probable reason James Bevel's legacy hasn't found widespread telling may pertain to--in my opinion--his misguided run as Vice President on Lyndon Larouche's 1992 ticket. They received only 26,000 votes. Jim Bevel joined the race because, after Larouche asked him, and Bevel tried to find him another running mate, he discovered that no one else would run with Larouche.

Larouche asked, Bevel liked the state of the fellow's marriage--Rev. Bevel considers principled marriages important to the success of mutually shared public actions (i.e. his own historic partnership with Diane Nash)--and felt that "since a citizen wants to stand for a constitutional office, I'll stand with him".

This, since it has given some people an easy way to dismiss him, may put a defined face on Rev. Bevel's tendency since the '60s to "hide-in-the-open". At that point I hadn't talked to Bevel in quite awhile, and knew nothing of his decision until the '92 election ended. If I had known I would have tried to talk him out of it, for I knew it would hurt him historically and would give the easy excuse mentioned above. From my own selfish perspective I would have not wanted a story I had involved myself in telling take a turn that I knew would put it further on the back-burner. I didn't like or dislike Larouche at the time, and found some of his writings entertaining and others full of enough conjuncture and accusatory jumping-to-conclusions that I experienced them as less than civil. I did applaud his advocating American funding for establishment of a colony on Mars (science geek that I am), but after finding out about the '92 campaign I knew that Larouche's sometimes informative but oftentimes--to put it nicely--generational gap inspired conspiracy theories, would glue-onto James Bevel's legacy.
Although during that election cycle I served as Jerry Brown's representative from Wisconsin on the Democratic National Platform Committee, this would not have added to my reasons for trying to discourage Bevel's run.

Now, many years later, I think the time may have come to 'let up' on this series of events as a reason to ignore Rev. Bevel's full place in history. James Bevel did his important deeds in the 1960s, and that historical period would not have evolved and unfolded as it did without his immense contribution. And no matter if one likes Rev. Bevel's current or past enthusiasms, his deeds and story stand, along with those of Dr. King, elected officials such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and several of the founders of the republic and drafters of its Constitution, at the very pinnacle of American history.

Jim Bevel did come to bat one more time. In 1994 Rev. Bevel co-initiated what became the largest single gathering in one place in American History--the1995 Day of Atonement Million Man March.

The agreement, as I understand it, occurred in under half a minute. Jim Bevel, who had a personal urge to find a way to call a national day of atonement, mentioned the idea to Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan himself had an ongoing urge: to somehow gather a million men, but he hadn't thought of a reason to call the men together.The two ideas instantly meshed, and another major event of 20th Century America bore the James Bevel imprint.