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James Bevel Funeralized in Alabama

Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader | 1/5/2009, 4 p.m.

(NNPA) - The Rev. James L. Bevel, a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement and co-creator of the Million Man March, died on Friday, December 19. He was 72.
The civil rights icon died in Virginia after a fight with pancreatic cancer. His four-hour funeral was held in Eutaw, Ala, where Minister Louis Farrakhan delivered the eulogy.
''I don't know nothing about James Bevel's personal life €" and that ain't none of my business,'' Farrakhan said to resounding applause. ''I know the things that I learned from him ... and I thank God for his life. In death, it seems like the things that hurt us fall to the back,'' Farrakhan told the more than 1,000 people, ''and the things that helped us come to the front.''

The four-hour service also featured eulogies and speeches from Tuscaloosa native Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and others. The service was filled with tales of Bevel's civil rights accomplishments and attended by former Freedom Riders, and movement leaders such as Andy Young, Rev. Bernard Lafayette, Rev. Dr. Al Sampson, Atty. Lewis Myers, Omar Johnson, Diane Nash, Atty. Al Lingo, Dorothy Tillman, civil rights icon U. S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and other notables.

Bevel was a top lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and architect of the 1963 Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Ala. But in April, a jury convicted Bevel of incest for having sex more than a decade ago with a then-teenage daughter. He served several months of his 15-year sentence before he was released in November on bond while appealing. Prosecutors opposed Bevel's release.

A Baptist minister, Bevel was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, two of the stalwart organizations that led efforts in the 1960s to desegregate the South. Decades later, he also helped organize the Million Man March.

''We are coming out of the Christmas season regarding the story of three wise men who followed the star, Rev. James Bevel was one of the three wise men, with Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy who followed a star of liberation for our people,€ said Sampson. €As Barack Obama will swear on a Lincoln bible on January 20 these three wise men had another bible that they swore on to free the captives to give sight to the blind, help the hungry and make America live up to its creed, that it will be a government for all of the people not some of the people.€

Bevel fought to desegregate downtown Birmingham stores, prompting police to respond with fire hoses and attack dogs against peaceful protesters. He also rallied young people in the city to get involved in civil rights demonstrations €" something King and other advisers objected to.

On May 2, 1963, children marched from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and 600 were arrested on that first day of demonstrations. After the news media highlighted police commissioner Eugene ''Bull'' Connor's violent treatment of the children, public opinion began to shift in favor of the civil rights movement.

Two years later, Bevel was a key figure in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital. The demonstration was spurred largely by the killing of a young protester by an Alabama state trooper. The chain of events and police violence that was captured on national television ultimately culminated in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Bevel also was active in the anti-war movement and greatly influenced King, who Bevel encouraged to confront the Vietnam War more directly. After King's assassination in 1968, Bevel helped lead many of King's unfinished efforts, such as a demonstration to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Bevel was born to sharecroppers on Oct. 19, 1936, in Itta Bena, Miss., one of 17 children. Married four times and the father of 16 children, he also had stints in the Navy and graduated in 1961 from Nashville's American Baptist Theological Seminary.
Prior to his time with SCLC, James Bevel worked in the Nashville Student Movement, where he participated in the 1960 Nashville Sit-In movement, directed the 1961 Open Theater Movement, chose the riders for the 1961 Nashville Student Movement continuation of the Freedom Rides, and initiated and directed the Mississippi Voting Rights Movement.

Later, in 1967, he took a leave from SCLC to direct the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and in 1995 co-initiated the Day of Atonment/Million Man March. In 2008, he was convicted of child abuse and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was free on bail during his appeal when he succumbed to his illness.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.