Leaders recall James Bevel at Ala. memorial

Published 12:47 am Thursday, January 1, 2009

A civil rights activist who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., should be remembered for his humanitarian work and not his personal problems, which included an incest conviction, leaders at his memorial service said.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was one of several who traveled to the rural west Alabama town of Eutaw for a memorial service Monday for the Rev. James Bevel, who died in Virginia on Dec. 19 at age 72 of pancreatic cancer.

In April, he was convicted in a Virginia court of incest for having sex more than a decade ago with a then-teenage daughter. He died while out on bond while appealing his 15-year sentence.

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Farrakhan, speaking at Greater Christ Temple Apostolic Church, drew loud applause when he said Bevel’s personal life is “none of my business.”

“I know the things that I learned from him … and I thank God for his life,” Farrakhan said.

About 300 people attended the four-hour service, which also included eulogies and speeches from Tuscaloosa native Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others.

Bevel was at the forefront of the civil rights movement with King and was one of the organizers of the Nashville sit-in movement in 1960, which resulted in the desegregation of the Tennessee city’s lunch counters.

He later fought to desegregate downtown Birmingham stores, prompting police to respond with fire hoses and attack dogs against peaceful protesters.

He was born in 1936 to sharecroppers in Itta Bena, Miss., and was buried in Eutaw, the town where he spent much of the last few years of his life.

The Rev. Al Sampson of Chicago, also a civil rights figure, and Bevel’s brother, “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, a multimedia artist and blues singer, said they were at first against Bevel’s decision to be buried in Eutaw, where Sampson said a law enforcement officer once held a gun to his head during a protest march.

But Eutaw is the county seat of Greene County, where blacks made historic electoral gains in the 1960s, and they acknowledged Eutaw’s significance in the civil rights movement.

Charles Bevel said he came to realize that his brother’s final resting place was fine.

“Here, I know Jim’s grave will be kept clean,” he said.