A key organizer for King’s SCLC, James Bevel was one of the principal architects of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which put hundreds of school kids in the streets in 1963. One way or another he was also involved in most all the major campaigns in the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides, usually recruiting volunteers and educating them in nonviolence, as he did in Jackson during the Rides.
In an interview for Eyes on the Prize, Bevel talked about how responsive the children of Birmingham were to the idea of nonviolent direct action, much more so than adults. James DeVinney was a writer, director and producer of the series. The full, unedited transcript of the interview has recently been posted at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.
James DeVinney: You talked about the indoctrination of adults. What was the adult thinking?
James Bevel: In ’63 in Birmingham most adults felt that segregation was permanent. That it was just that way, a permanent system. People’s homes and churches had been bombed, people had been lynched and killed and there was no process by which you could gain redress to your grievances. The adults had a conditioning.
As organizers you had to get people who had not experienced all of that and who had confidence in themselves and in our system of law.
The young people in Birmingham were susceptible to the principle that the attitudes and opinions of white people did not constitute law. That that was simply tradition and custom and if we lived according to the New Testament and the Constitution, then we would forge a new law rather than having to live by the attitudes and opinions of the dominant people at that point.
DeVinney: Tell me a story about what it was like when you started to train all those children.
Bevel: I had come out of the Nashville movement and the Mississippi movement, where we had basically used young people all the time. And at first King didn’t want me to use young people in Birmingham, because I had 80 charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor against me in Jackson, Mississippi, for sending young people on the Freedom Ride.
James Bevel rode on the first bus of Freedom Riders into Jackson in 1961. He quickly bailed out after his arrest and began recruiting local high school students to join the Rides.
At that point that was about only five to ten, twelve adults who would go on demonstrations each day. My position was, you can’t get the dialogue you need with so few people. Besides, most adults have bills to pay, house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills.
But the young people — they can think at the same level but are not, at this point, hooked with all those responsibilities. So a boy from high school, he get the same effect in terms of being in jail in terms of putting the pressure on the city as his father and yet he is not, there is no economic threat on the family because the father is still on the job.
So the high school students was like our choice.
We said to them you’re adults, but you’re still sort of living on your mamas and your daddies. It is your responsibility, in that you don’t have to pay the bills, to confront the segregation question. We went around and started organizing say like the queens of the high schools, the basketball stars, the football stars, so you get the influence and power leaders involved. And then they in turn got all the other students involved. . . .
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Jesse Harris was one of the many Riders from Jackson, Mississippi, a newcomer to the movement who got his first education in nonviolence while locked up in Parchman with the likes of James Farmer, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. Civil Rights would become his life for the next ten years. After the Rides, Jesse worked as an organizer all over Mississippi, from the cotton fields of the Delta to the mean streets of McComb, until 1971. It is a record of perseverance and endurance at a time when many in the movement left the state for other campaigns after a year or two.
April 3, 2007, Jackson, Mississippi
The following are excerpts from my interview with Harris in 2007.
On being recruited to join the Freedom Rides by James Bevel, a member of the Nashville student movement and a fellow Mississippian:
James Bevel came to the place where we hung out at — it was like a pool hall. He said, “Hey, we got this bus coming in. People are gonna be protesting at the Trailways bus station and they need local support.”
That’s where my education stated.
People had to be orientated in the philosophy of nonviolence. Because we were gang members, now. You might say that I was one of the leaders of the Georgetown Gang. When I went to jail, when they heard that I was in jail, the whole gang came in right after me.
When I got out of jail, everybody said, “Hey!”
And I said, “Well, you gotta go, too. You ain’t nothing until you go to jail. You Uncle Tom ’til you go to jail.”
On his time in Parchman:
I didn’t understand nonviolence. I learned all that when we was in Parchman with James Lawson and John Lewis and all of ’em. That’s the way we occupied our time. We was engaged in discussions. I was picking up not only the philosophy of nonviolence but the history. These people had been active back in the 1950s, in the 1940s. I learned so much.
Before they got there, I think somebody set forth — I think it was James Farmer — said, “Well this is what we’re gonna do. This is the agenda while we’re here. We’re gonna get up in the morning, make up our bed, say our prayer, and we’re gonna start our discussions at 9:00.”
I didn’t talk about nothing. I was listening. [Laughs.] I was loving it. Yeah, I was learning it.
My favorite was Bernard Lafayette, because he more like the hood type, in his conversation. What you call the street talk. He can relate that back to where I came from, to those of us who were from the Jackson area. We relate to him because he was funny and he was intellectual. Lawson and Farmer, they were talking like they giving a lecture at Harvard University or something, especially when Lawson was talking about the Bible.
On organizing in Mississippi:
In Laurel, I went down to the county clerk and said, “I’m here to encourage people to register to vote.”
She said, “OK, but don’t bring no more than two at a time. I can’t handle but two at a time ’cause I got other work.”
I said, “Oh, two at time? Okay.”
I was there the next morning with about 150 people. [Laughs.]
She said, “By God, you son of a bitch.”
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On May 25, 2011, as part of a week-long commemoration in Mississippi of the 1961 Freedom Rides, many of the Riders who had been incarcerated in Parchman that summer returned to the prison and toured Unit 17, the maximum security building where they had been locked up.
In 1961 Unit 17 was also the site of death row and the gas chamber, which was located in the rooms off the main cell block to the right in the diagram above. Unit 17 no longer houses any prisoners, but inmates are still executed here, now by lethal injection.
Rick Sheviakov. In the background is David Baer, son of Rider Byron Baer, who was Sheviakov’s cellmate and died in 2007.
Judith Frieze Wright