Thursday, January 1, 2009

Reverend James Bevel...

This was written in a hurry, pouring out of me before we ended 2008. I have not edited it beyond a cursory look or two. Please accept as is...

I met the Reverend James Bevel in a nondescript, drafty room owned by a vegan restaurant on the south side of Chicago, a large space used for catering events. Reverend Bevel was a slight, slim man, with a graying beard, yarmulke-like cap and black Nehru-style jacket and slacks. This, I would come to know, was his standard uniform. He had an elegant, almost regal bearing, and as he greeted me that day, I had a hard time meeting his eyes, which were steely and intense. He did not smile as we met: this was serious business to him, the meeting of people.

It’s a little complicated how we came to know one another, but the purpose was simple and very ambitious: we aimed to build a vegan movement based on the same principles of Gandhian non-violent resistance as was at the foundation of the civil rights movement. Reverend Bevel had a group of activists he worked with on the south side of Chicago, all African American, nearly all women, and the idea was to bring his group together with my group of mostly Caucasian vegan activists. That day at the restaurant, many of us met for the first time: I met his daughter, who must have been around four at the time, his peaceful, gentle and much younger wife, Erica, a fiery and articulate associate named Valencia, another attractive young woman who was deeply dedicated to Reverend Bevel, among others. One common denominator of all “his” people – and we never did figure out a name for this group, so my husband and I referred to them as Bevel’s flock or group or acolytes – in addition to their race, was that they were all deeply religious people.

I was familiar with Reverend Bevel for some time before we met. I had read David Halbertstam’s excellent book, The Children, an exhaustive history of the civil rights movement, and James Bevel was stitched throughout, from the beginning until the end. By all accounts, he was a frustrating, difficult man to work with: headstrong beyond reason, he would remain steadfast in his views and behavior, no matter how emphatically or frequently he was asked to change. Despite his refusal to “play nice with others” his brilliance as a strategist was undeniable and he was respected as a, if not the, chief architect of the movement. His name is not better known for a few reasons, part of which is due to his divisive nature, which turned people away, and the politics of personality. Dr. King had a much more agreeable demeanor.

As a strategist, though, Reverend Bevel was unparalleled. It was his idea, over Dr. King’s reservations, to put children in the frontlines, specifically using this to dramatic effect in Birmingham, Alabama, where he organized children to march to city hall, bringing attention to segregation in a much more resonant way than it would have been with adults in their place. The public saw the excessive use of force used against the peaceful children – attack dogs and spraying hoses – and many who were sitting on the fence couldn’t help but be moved. This was one of the first examples of using the relatively new television medium to sway public opinion on a social justice issue, and he did so brilliantly. He also organized the march from Selma to Montgomery after a young civil rights activist was killed by Alabama state troopers, and the violence that was unleashed against the marchers ultimately helped to turn the tide: then-President Lyndon Johnson insisted that the Voting Rights Act be passed by Congress and it was. Reverend Bevel worked alongside Dr. King as his equal, and he was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education. Despite the reputation that preceded him – as a sex addict (he is rumored to have fathered between sixteen to nineteen children), as a loose canon – given what I knew about Reverend Bevel from The Children, I couldn’t wait to meet the man.

That first day at the vegan restaurant, he gave a presentation to our group, hinting at his skills as an incendiary orator, and he laid out his philosophy about what he felt had led the world astray: he drew a box on a sheet of paper with the letter F on each corner, arrows, leading from one to the next. To him, the root of every human-created problem on earth was what he called the “Four F’s”: Fornicating, Flesh-eating, Fighting and Fantasy-telling. To Reverend Bevel, if you engaged in one of these F’s, you set an inevitable chain-reaction in motion, leading to self-debasement, disengagement and violence. Fornication (which, by his definition, meant sexual relations for reasons other than procreation) led to flesh-eating and on and on, an endless cycle of depraved behaviors, a creating of hell on earth. As he described the “Four F’s”, I had a most bizarre cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, I was entirely unconvinced of his point-of-view and frightened by his fundamentalist convictions; on the other hand, I couldn’t stop listening. I was enthralled. Afterwards, as people were packing up to leave, he walked over to me and asked me point-blank about my faith. I blinked a few times. My faith? Yes, he said impatiently, what is your religion? Well, I was raised as a Jew, I told him, but now I’m more of a pagan. A what? He looked at me disapprovingly, those dark eyes appraising me. A pagan, I repeated. He nodded his head slowly and walked away. Later, John explained to me that to a fundamentalist, paganism means something very different than to a nature-loving feminist. I felt very na├»ve to not have anticipated this.

Despite this gaffe, we agreed to start meeting to try to get our vegan movement off the ground, my group of assorted, atheistic activists, and his group of very devout community organizers. We met every Friday night for a year at a gym near Greektown, discussing movement and the history of democracy and what it means to be a citizen in the mirrored aerobics room, plates of food on the long table in front of us.

Reverend Bevel and his flock would appear with giant rectangular pans bursting with food, freshly prepared: seitan made from scratch, casseroles, layer cakes. There was always an abundance of food. Early on, I said something to Erica, Reverend Bevel’s wife, staggered by the sheer amount of preparation that must have gone into their offering, just one meal of the week. Well, she said with a subtle smile, we do like to eat. (This left a lasting impression on me: Ever since this year of meeting with Reverend Bevel and the others, I always prepare way more food than I figure that we’ll need at a potluck. Social gatherings around food with meager offerings, bowls barely filled, always are a little depressing: let the platters runneth over.)

The year we met Reverend Bevel, which John and I came to call Our Year Of Potlucks (in addition to this group, which we came to call The Roots of Peace, we had a monthly EarthSave Chicago vegan potluck), was something that had my closest friends scratching their heads. How could I, an avowed feminist, a rejecter of fundamentalist values, willingly choose to spend time with people who looked to the Old Testament for moral guidance? I couldn’t explain it then and I am no closer to understanding it now. At times, I worried that I was being drawn into a cult; Reverend Bevel told us matter-of-factly that he wanted us to adopt their way of living (in other words, embrace the “Four F’s”). As he said quite solemnly to John, he had never had a white brother and he very much wanted one. This didn’t happen – we could never, ever make the sort of leap of faith he required – but we enjoyed the group for what it was: an opportunity to learn from someone who was a master at building movement, who understood how dynamic and fascinating it is to dig complex networks of democratic channels into communities, to be an engaged citizen. As the year progressed, our group whittled down to a core of five or six of us: many of the activist friends I brought along, though initially fascinated, eventually found Reverend Bevel’s dogmatic proselytizing to be an insurmountable obstacle to accept, and they understandably jumped ship. Once it became clear that John and I were not going to adopt his principles and become acolytes, Reverend Bevel lost interest in pursuing us. We parted amicably: he had other uses of his time, others to reach, more embracing of his views, and we were ready to move on as well. We saw Reverend Bevel and his group a few more times before they moved from Chicago to a farming community in the south, and it was always warm and friendly. The last time I saw Reverend Bevel, fittingly, it was at a crowded, boisterous potluck. He walked up to me and told me, with almost a childlike vulnerability and shyness, that he loved me. I told him that I loved him back.

I saw flickers of his famous temper, coupled with his vulnerability, throughout our time together. One time in particular, he became incensed at being interrupted by someone and jumped to the conclusion that the person was saying something that he was not. No matter. Once he was ignited, he just couldn’t undo it, and the string of expletives that issued from his mouth – almost like a Satanic possession had occurred for two terrifying minutes straight – shocked me, even as someone who is hardly traumatized by a curse word or two. But it was something that he did when he finally calmed down – the women in his group remained unfazed, reassuring the rest of us in soothing tones that this was merely Reverend Bevel speaking his truth – that made an impression on me: he looked at me with an expression full of shame and embarrassment, his head lowered, eyes fearful, almost like a child afraid of being punished. I had seen that look before, and I recognized it. It was the same way my father would look after one of his drunken tirades, after yet another violent transgression against me, against my family. Reverend Bevel, in his own way, was like my father. He and my father both had demons they struggled with their whole lives. Both aspired to overcome these demons, and both were rendered powerless to do so. I cannot know why someone like Reverend Bevel – someone who was so charismatic and brilliant – was unable to beat his demons.

Reverend Bevel passed away on December 19, 2008 of pancreatic cancer. I got a simple message from Erica that he has passed, that he was now, as she put it, an ancestor. In the two or more years leading up to his death, he was being criminally pursued by one of his daughters for sexually abusing her: the statute of limitations had not worn out. According to this daughter, there were other daughters with similar stories, and she was mainly pursuing this because she was concerned for James and Erica’s young daughter, now entering the age where he had begun his incestuous behavior with her, which he considered to be part of her “religious education.” He was convicted of incest and was granted an appeal bond; he died shortly after.

On hearing that Reverend Bevel was up on criminal charges for incest, I have to say that I was not shocked. Without going too much into it, I should just say that he reminded me of my father for a reason. Because I can well imagine the shattering horror that is incest, and because I am at my core a feminist, it makes it very hard for me to not write Reverend Bevel off as a depraved, manipulative, cruel monster. It’s very tempting and it’s understandable why someone would do this. That aspect of him is part of the picture, an essential part of the picture, but it’s not the whole one. Even sexual predators have three dimensions.

The memories of Reverend Bevel I will cherish are many: knowing him enriched me, made me a more committed, thoughtful person, and I think that I gave him back this gift. I will remember singing with him and our group after Friday night meetings, as it was Reverend Bevel’s conviction that all movements needed song, so John brought his guitar and sheet music. He had a beautiful, resonant singing voice, and he clearly relished creating music. I will remember his smile, his easy laughter, once he let his guard down. I will remember his depth as he spoke, his sense of humor, his wisdom. I will remember how dynamic it felt for a time when we were all together, rolling up our sleeves to dig into what we saw as our work: the work of compassion, using the model of Gandhi and King. We were invigorated by the work and each other.

So despite his deep flaws and misdeeds, I will continue to love Reverend Bevel. Sometimes you can’t explain why you love someone, and I wrote this whole piece trying to explore that very question, coming to the conclusion that sometimes you just do. In loving him, I have forgiven him. In forgiving him, I have forgiven my father. In forgiving my father, I am expanding myself. In expanding myself, I am a better person.

I am grateful to Reverend Bevel for making me a better person. I hope that he has found peace, and I hope this for his children as well.

Shalom, everyone.


  1. As the initiator and organizer of the meetings and vegan movement concept that Marlo speaks of here, I had a very different impression of Rev. Bevel, whom I had known since 1983.
    Loving, playful, and quick to smile, yes, but rather than a dogmatic Old Testament, pagan disliking, convert pursuing, guarded minister the Jim I knew, thank Goddess, came across to me as just the opposite.
    As a lifelong farmer and lover of the soil and all of nature, Jim--who was 1/3 American Indian--had more pagan blood running in his veins than anyone else I met at those failed vegan movement meetings (won't go into why they failed on this blog). Eyes shameful? Head hanging embarrassed? Never saw Jim shameful or embarrassed, or with his guard "up". When he used anger to make a point he always released data in clear and scientific language, and didn't mind others expressing emotions around him.
    The people who knew Jim, what to call them? How about 'friends'. or 'relatives'. I brought friends and relatives to the meetings from time to time, and Jim Bevel was one of the friends I brought who stuck around trying to educate, get work done, and get a movement up and running.
    As for the incest, yes, he was convicted of it, but none of us really know if it occurred. He always denied the charge, and took his denial to the grave (in fact, over his grave--see his epitath pictured on the last page of his "Homegoing Program"). He told me when I first asked about it that if he had done what his daughter accused him of he would go right to the prison gate, pound on it, and demand to be let in.
    So Jim, myself, and many of our friends and relatives met for over a year, trying to educate a group of people about movement, how to go about doing it, and presenting concise movement plans and options to them. None of us walked away.
    A bit more of James Bevel's history. He, indeed, can be called the architect and strategist of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and not only did Bevel--the Father of Voting Rights--call and plan the march from Selma-to-Montgomery, he initiated, strategized, and directed the entire Selma Movement.
    As for the pot-lucks preceding our meetings, I can wholeheartedly agree with Marla. Everyone there liked food, cooked it well, and shared willingly. Lentils and rice anyone?

  2. Hi, Randy -

    I am only seeing this now so I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. Thank you for your feedback.

    I have to say that I disagree with both your interpretation of my characterization of Rev. Bevel and the historic veracity of our time working together. I described Rev. Bevel as charismatic, as a deeply moving orator, a brilliant mind, and you seem to be under the impression that I characterized him solely as dogmatic and intense. No, Randy, I didn't, but this is part of who he was and I think that it is revisionist to say the least to whitewash anything that could be construed as a criticism. I loved Rev. Bevel, as I said in my piece, but it was tempered by knowing this part of him. You may disagree, Randy, but that doesn't mean that you are correct and I am incorrect or vice verse: how people affect us is very personal and unique to the individuals who are affected. No one can impose his perspective on another no matter how much he might prefer that story.

    In terms of the pagan thing, for example, do you have some sort of barometer for judging if one is a "true" pagan? Also, how do you know how Jim responded to me when I told him I was pagan? Were you part of that conversation? Did you see things through my eyes? It is arrogant to impose your views on someone else's experience, no matter what an "expert" you might feel to be on the subject. I know what I saw, Randy. I only saw flashes of what I described, but I saw them. I don't need to justify this further.

    In terms of his anger, again, putting it again in the context in which I wrote it, I saw it only occasionally. By far, most of the time I saw Rev. Bevel, he was a very spirited, warm person. (I can't emphasize enough how much I loved being around this man.) But always putting things in "scientific" terms: no, Randy. In fact, one of the first times we met, he blew up at you in a way that was terrifying to everyone who was not familiar yet with Rev. Bevel. Truly, this was probably two minutes straight of absolutely vile language. I'm very surprised that you don't recall this. I am only bringing it up because you seem to have forgotten it in your response. This was not his standard way of acting, but it was there. I saw flashes of it then and again but never like that first time. Most of the time, he was open to debate and extremely reasonable.

    In terms of the incest accusation, I do not know what happened there. It is between him and his daughter (and the other daughters who subsequently corroborated). I do not know what happened and I cannot claim to, nor have I ever.

    In terms of walking away, again, Randy, I have a very, very different interpretation of things. I am happy to discuss them with you privately if you are ever inclined.

    I am happy and grateful for the time we spent together. I loved Reverend Bevel and all his extended family. Just because I interpreted things in a different way than you, it doesn't mean that I didn't very much respect Rev. Bevel and appreciate him and his gifts. I do, however, refuse to idealize him or anyone else for that matter.

    All the best,


  3. Marla,
    My comment above answers yours, a type of comment sandwich. Read it again, in relationship to the topics and written perceptions included in your newest comment.

  4. p.s.
    "nor have I ever". Please reread your original post, you may have not reread it when answering my comment. That may also explain some other points in your answer.

  5. Marla,

    Thank you for your post. It is insightful and interesting to me as one of Jim's daughters to hear how you could glean so much about his complexities and his contradictions. Indeed, you are quite perceptive. Jim, like many public figures in our history spoke most boldly and most often about the very things with which he struggled. Even his veganism, like his purported sex-for-procreation-only ideology, was not without compromise.

    Many of his children have struggled our entire lives to understand and live with his contradictions. Many of us, like you, found it hard not to love him despite his monstrous deeds. Perhaps it was the grain of truth spoken in his lengthy sermons, the fearlessness and love he exhibited to change the world somewhere in his past, or the unyielding hope that he would one day heed his own message and atone for his horrific sins and violence. Just as the so-called "forefathers" of our country never comprehended the power of their own ideals (as far as I know, none of them fought for the freedom and dignity of all people), Jim never fully comprehended the power of the bits of truth he spoke. Yet, the power of those founding ideals was unmistakable and, as we have become more enlightened, those ideals have launched humankind into a place those same men could never have imagined (nor would they likely have found tolerable). Jim, too, spawned unmistakable power into the universe - not through the cult members who blindly followed him and foolishly justified his faults - but, ironically, through the very children he abused and abandoned.

    At his invitation, we used the most powerful tools of the movement - the six principles of nonviolent resistance, standing on the foundation of truth and love - to confront and address his pedophilia and his lies. We embarked on this weighty endeavor and unceasingly struggled with the man who gave us life for more than five long years before he died. Our reward was not that our father was convicted - for there was no glory in that and certainly no joy - but rather, contrary to Randy's misinformed assertions, we did get to hear his confession and, most recently, we read it in his own handwriting. Anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of another can understand what a gift confession can be. Unfortunately, our father did not get to live out the potential power of full atonement - for I always believed his true mission was to teach men that manhood cannot exist in an atmosphere that tolerates the public or private abuse, rape, objectification, denial of opportunities and education, discrimination or inferiority of women or the glorification of misogyny, abusiveness, narcissism and feigned superiority of men. Now, I suppose, that is our torch to bear. But, Jim did get to carry his own cross before he died, alleviating us of some of that pain.

    Though, again contrary to Mr. Kryn's misinformation, we have no Native American blood in our Bevel ancestry (as DNA tests have confirmed), we can hopefully reach around the world to atheist, pagans, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and fundamentalists alike to use our father's life - his amazing achievements and his dastardly shortcomings - to teach the principles he could never fully apply and comprehend.

    In truth and love,

  6. OneDaughter, I am truly, truly blown away by your feedback and I do so appreciate your courage and insights. This just amazes me. I am so touched, it's hard to put into words.

    Your father, as you know, was a troubled but brilliant man. I loved him. Thank you for sharing your insights so freely and courageously. You are right: he did put power into the universe with his many children. Thank you for doing all you do. I am sure that you're a remarkable person. I hope that you have found peace and healing. I am seeking the same. If you can take the best of what your father taught - the best of who he was - and use it for this purpose, I should think that you would find this and bring it to others who have come from similar backgrounds. My hope is that we all find the sort of fierce dignity that you have fond for yourself, OneDaughter.

    Peace and love always,


  7. To Namaste,
    A few questions. Did your father know about the DNA tests which say he had no American Indian blood? He always said he did, and he seemed to beleive it, so one of your grandparents must have told him so. Check with his brother Charles to see if the family was told that.
    If you have or saw your dad's confession in his handwriting, or heard his confession, please pass along the details of where and when he made these confessions. I'd like to hear or read them.
    I was a friend of your father, but also a journalist who worked on your father's history long enough to become a historian in regards to his work. You have never spoken to me about my work, or my relationship with your dad, or what research brought me to which conclusion. If some of my data is wrong please let me know. I look forward to hearing more about the alleged confessions, and these would be useful to future researchers and historians.
    My best to you and your family,
    Randy Kryn

  8. Interview with Helen Bevel

    The following is the text from an interview by a person who chooses to remain anonymous and Helen Bevel, the wife of Reverend James Luther Bevel and the mother of Aaralyn Mills. This interview took place during April, 2010.

    Interviewer - Good Afternoon. I’m so glad you have agreed to this interview.
    Helen Bevel – Well I’m looking forward to it. Thank you for asking.
    I – Now, Mrs. Bevel..
    H – You can call me Helen
    I – Okay, Helen you were married to Reverend James L. Bevel and the two of you had six children is that correct?
    H – My late husband and I had five children, three girls and two boys. I had a daughter when I met Bevel.
    I – Where you and Rev. Bevel divorced?
    H – Yes, however in our tradition divorce like marriage is really just a piece of paper. I mean we were married 13 years before we made it legal in 1981. So the divorce didn’t end our marriage although many people based on the cultural norm believed we did, and acted in that manner.
    I – So are you saying that in your tradition marriage is forever even though you may go thru divorce proceedings, other legal marriages, etc.
    H – Yes, that is what I am saying. Marriage is an agreement and the agreement does not depend on paper or legal structures. It’s between the parties and God.
    I – So what agreement did you and Rev. Bevel have?
    H – Well, we agreed that the society as it is is based on a violent foundation which was rooted in the people that make up the society (including ourselves). So the next agreement was that each of us would work to eradicate from our self all aspects of the society and create a new society or system of relationships that is built on being healthy (physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually) and nonviolence.
    I – Sounds like this agreement would include many others.
    H – Yes, that is true; we further agreed to have children and to raise them to be healthy and nonviolent.
    I – So excuse me for my bluntness, but wasn’t Rev. Bevel accused and found guilty of engaging in incest with one of your daughters as a minor? Did that nullify the agreement?
    H – I can see how you would come to such a conclusion however, I said the agreement takes into account that we were born in sin and shaped in iniquity or a violent society and that we would work to get the violence out of ourselves. Incest and all sexual perversions are a part of this violent society. I mean no child is born a criminal. Criminal activity is something you learn. It is learned behavior not nature’s plan. Uprooting the particular malady and finding means and methods for doing this is a work in progress.
    I – Do you believe that pedophilia or sexual offenders can be rehabilitated. It is a belief in the society that they can’t be healed.
    H – Again the violent society has a lot of dead ends that say something can’t be done. Where there is a will there is a way, and whatever the mind of man can conceive, the mind of man can achieve. I believe that a person can be restored to the state of purity and innocence that they came to the planet with and let me add the level of health. And in that I believe this is achievable.

    The complete interview can be read at:

  9. James Bevel's anom. "OneDaughter", who wrote a note a few above this one, never answered my note two under hers requesting the information of where Bevel confessed and where the "written confession" is located. As I mentioned in my note to her, this data would be very useful to historicans, and if she or another member of anom's family can post that data here it would be useful. Thanks.

    Randy Kryn


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