Bevel's Second Children's Crusade
A hero of the civil rights movement was put on trial this week for incest. Some would call that a story.
I don't know whether to attribute the lack of coverage accorded James Bevel's incest trial to historical ignorance, political correctness, or the media's inability to grasp that a man can sometimes be both hero and monster. Bevel, as Bonnie Goldstein pointed out this week in Slate's "XX Factor," is one of the undisputed giants of the civil rights movement. He was an organizer of the Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington (at which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech). Most significantly, it was Bevel who led thousands of African-American schoolchildren to march in 1963's "Children's Crusade" in Birmingham, Ala. Television images of these youthful demonstrators being knocked down by fire hoses and attacked by police dogs helped turn the tide of public opinion against Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner "Bull" Connor and Southern white segregationism generally. An intimate of King, Bevel was with him when he was killed, and just last week related his memories of that awful event as part of Time magazine's coverage of the assassination's 40th anniversary.
Even in those days, Bevel had a reputation for being a little off his nut. From Nick Kotz's book, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Made America:
Easily distinguishable by the yarmulke he wore on his shaved head, Baptist minister James Bevel looked and acted like an eccentric, messianic preacher. He was a captivating speaker, an imaginative tactician, and, in the eyes of the other [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] staff, a "loose cannon." When reckless courage was needed, King called on Bevel, whom he called "one of my wild men."
I'm a bit hazy about the trajectory of Bevel's career after 1968, but by the 1990s, Bevel had clearly moved beyond eccentricity and fallen in with Lyndon LaRouche. In 1992, when LaRouche ran for president while serving a prison sentence for conspiring to commit mail and tax fraud, Bevel was his running mate.
Now Bevel has surfaced again in what is being treated as a local news story in the Virginia area (though it's received appropriate national attention in Slate's corporate sibling The Root). Bevel was arrested in June for pressuring his daughter to have sex with him in Leesburg, Va., when she was 15. According to the daughter, unnamed in news accounts, the sexual abuse began when she was 6 and occurred about 10 times. She decided to bring charges sometime later, after several now-grown female siblings—Bevel has 16 children with seven different mothers—related similar experiences at a family reunion. According to prosecutors, Bevel told his daughters that it was his paternal duty to train them sexually.
The trial began Monday. I learned about it only because I happened to wander into the back pages of the Washington Post's Metro section. Bevel pleaded not guilty, but the evidence against him was overwhelming. The cops had him acknowledging it on tape; other family members said he didn't deny it when they staged an intervention; and on the witness stand, Bevel himself admitted he'd "engaged in rubbing [his daughter's] chest in an educational context." By this afternoon, the jury had returned a guilty verdict. I wonder if that will provide the necessary ballast to attract national attention, or at least move it onto the Post Metro section's front page.
[Update, April 11: The Post played it on Page 3 of the Metro section, at least in the edition I received at home. The Web version of the story says it fronted Metro, so I presume somebody at the Post woke up to the story's significance in time for a late edition. The daughter, incidentally, has now stated that she wishes to be named, so the Post names her: Jamese Machado. Though apparently more recently she's gone by the name Aaralyn Mills.
The Times has an Associated Press story about Bevel's conviction on its Web site, but I couldn't find the story in my dead-trees edition. Nothing about the conviction appears on the L.A. Times Web site, not even in its AP roundup, or on the CNN Web site either. Nothing even in the supposedly sex-obsessed New York Post! Zen riddle: If a hero of the civil rights movement falls from grace and nobody notices, did it really happen?]
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of the Rev. James Bevel by AP Photo/Courtesy Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.