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James Bevel: “If you’re not going to respect policemen, you’re not going to be in the movement.”

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.

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.

James Bevel

In an interview for the documentary Eyes on the Prize, Bevel talked about the importance of respecting the police during demonstrations, even as they may be attacking the demonstrators. James DeVinney was a writer, director and producer of the series. The full, unedited transcript of the interview has been posted at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.

James Devinney: I have seen a photograph of you, Reverend Bevel, where you were using a policeman’s bullhorn to talk to some children because I think they started to misbehave one day. Could you tell us that story?

James Bevel: Yeah, that was the time I was referring to [in Birmingham]. We were coming off a demonstration and the police was driving the students back with water and dogs, and when we got back to the church a lot of their parents had come out to watch. The students was being playful and jovial and mocking the police, but the adults — upon seeing a lot of the students knocked down by the water and their clothes torn off by dogs — began to organize their guns and knives and bricks.

What I did, actually, was tell the students that they had to respect police officers, that their job was to help police and to keep order. That the police was there to keep order and that the people who was there throwing [things] was probably paid instigators, and therefore we had to watch them. And it was very effective. It started all the students to pointing at adults who had rocks and knives and guns, and then the adults had to start dropping them. Because it would’ve started a riot, and a riot would’ve gotten off the issue. The students was very aware of that, and the adults weren’t aware of that.

So what we did, we got the adults that day say, maybe nearly a thousand, to go into the church, and to go through the reasons why you don’t use violence. The fact that we were in control and that we were gaining because we were not using violence because the issues were being made clear. But that was like one of the spectacular events one time that this policeman with a bullhorn not knowing what to do with it to keep order, and I said, “Well, where’s Bull Connor?” And he said, “Well,” and he started looking for him. And I said, “Let me use your bullhorn.”

So he just gave it to me, and I said, “OK, get off the streets now. We’re not going to have violence. If you’re not going to respect policemen, you’re not going to be in the movement.”

And you know, it’s strange I guess for them. I’m with the police talking through their bullhorn and giving orders and everybody was obeying. It was like, it was wow! But what was at stake was the possibility of a riot and that, in a movement, once a riot break out, you have to stop, takes you four or five days to get re-established, and I was trying to avoid that kind of situation.