James Bevel was the charismatic Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field general who organized and led many of the actions of the Chicago Freedom Movement. Born in Mississippi in 1936, Bevel came to the civil rights movement after training to be a minister at the American Baptist Seminary and a brief stint in the Army.
Bevel first learned of the potential of non-violent direct action in the Nashville sit-in movement of 1960. During that year, he became one of the charter members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. After joining the Freedom Rides in 1961 and organizing Mississippi blacks, he was recruited to join SCLC when its leaders decided that the organization needed staffers who could encourage youth activity. He was a critical strategist in SCLC’s landmark campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama.
Bevel had grown up in part in the Midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio, and he was married to native Chicagoan Diane Nash Bevel, so he was well aware of the inequities that northern blacks faced. In 1965 he became program director of the West Side Christian Parish, an inner-city outreach ministry on Chicago’s West Side. From that post, he teamed up with his friend Bernard LaFayette, who was already working on the West Side, other activists, and an SCLC advance team to lay the foundation for SCLC’s Chicago project.
According to one Chicago civil rights worker, Bevel immediately “fashioned an impressive reputation as an inspiring orator, a brilliant civil rights strategist.” [Ralph 41] According to another activist, “It always seemed that Bevel was the one who got up and drew the diagrams on the blackboard and had all these new insights and ideas . . . he was a real philosopher.” [Ralph 50]
When the Chicago Freedom Movement decided to target the city’s dual housing market, Bevel, as a member of the Action Committee, helped to apply nonviolent direct action to tackle this problem. When calls came from influential Chicagoans in the summer of 1966 to halt the marches, Bevel insisted that the marches had to continue.
At the summit negotiations involving movement activists, city officials, real estate representatives, religious leaders, and the business community, Bevel demanded immediate action to ending housing discrimination. Even though not entirely happy with the resulting Summit agreement, he sought to dissuade disgruntled Chicago Freedom Movement activists from staging a march on Cicero in September 1966.
After the open-housing campaign, Bevel focused more of his energies on ending the war in Vietnam. His influence helped to spur Martin Luther King, Jr., to denounce the war in 1967.
In recent years, Bevel has worked in Chicago and Philadelphia to address the kinds of inner-city problems that the Chicago Freedom Movement confronted in 1966.