James Bevel was born 19 October 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. After graduating from high school, Bevel served a stint in the military before moving to Nashville to attend American Baptist Theological Seminary. While living in Nashville, he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where he and other civil rights activists learned techniques for organizing communities. In addition to the Highlander workshops, Bevel attended James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolent direct action and employed those strategies in a series of sit-ins that desegregated Nashville’s lunch counters.
During the summer of 1961 Bevel and other Nashville activists joined the Freedom Rides after the initial participants encountered the violence of white mobs and were injured. Arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, Bevel and others were jailed; at the end of the summer, when local and county jails were overflowing with several hundred Freedom Riders, Gov. Ross Barnett moved Bevel’s group to Parchman State Penitentiary. After his release from Parchman, Bevel began working full time for the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Bevel and several other veterans of the Freedom Rides set up a SNCC office in Jackson to help coordinate the group’s Mississippi Project for voting rights.
Bevel, however, was part of a SNCC faction that focused more on desegregation than on voter registration, and he led a campaign urging students to participate in nonviolent direct action protests. With Bevel’s encouragement, students from Jackson State and Tougaloo College formed the Jackson Nonviolent Movement. After encouraging the students to stage a sit-in, Bevel was arrested and later convicted of contributing to the delinquency of minors. Such consequences, however, failed to deter Bevel, and in 1962 he organized a boycott of the city’s segregated buses. That year he married Diane Nash, another veteran of the Nashville sit-ins who was in Jackson working for SNCC. Though the couple later divorced, they worked on social justice projects together for a number of years.
Shortly after marrying, Bevel and Nash left Jackson for Cleveland, Mississippi, where they lived with Amzie Moore, setting up citizenship classes for voter registration, leading workshops on nonviolent direct action, and sending letters to prominent whites urging them to support the movement. Using Cleveland as a base for his work throughout the Delta, Bevel regularly spoke at mass meetings about voter registration, educational and economic issues, and nonviolent direct action. Bevel also organized efforts for desegregation and voter registration in Clarksdale and McComb, and in Greenwood he coordinated voter registration efforts with food and clothing distribution centers. Bevel also worked with Fannie Lou Hamer to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged Mississippi’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964.
By the mid-1960s Bevel extended his civil rights activities beyond Mississippi. In Alabama, he organized the Children’s March in Birmingham as well as the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. In 1963 he coordinated efforts for the March on Washington, and in 1966 he began working for the Chicago freedom movement to improve housing. Before leaving the Southern Christian Leadership Council in 1969, Bevel helped with the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. In the 1980s he founded Students for Education and Economic Development, and in 1992 he helped organize the Million Man March. Bevel served for many years as pastor of the Hebraic-Christian-Islamic Assembly in Chicago. In 2008 Bevel was convicted of unlawful fornication and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Seven months later, freed on bail in preparation for appeal, he died of cancer.
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Ernest M. Limbo, in The Human Rights Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Susan M. Glisson (2006)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Jennifer A. Stollman, in The Human Rights Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Susan M. Glisson (2006)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)