At some point in the spring or summer of 1981, a fellow came unannounced into our offices. At that point, the Journal’s first year, we were housed in the basement of an apartment building on Harrison Street. He was wearing what I would have called, in those days, African garb. Trim, bald, with a beard and a way about him that put me on edge.
He introduced himself as James Bevel and he had materials, a sheaf of papers in his hand that he wanted us to publish as a regular column. Since we were barely getting by and making it into print each Wednesday was an uncertain adventure, I wasn’t actively looking for columnists seeking to promote macro-economic theories, as I remember him describing the ideas.
I asked him to leave the papers, told him I’d read them and to come back in a week or so. I did read them, as clearly as I could read the eccentric right-wing propaganda being spouted. I didn’t know enough to recognize it as the work of Lyndon LaRouche, a very fringe fellow.
What I don’t remember is how I figured out back then that James Bevel was a very notable, very inner-circle member of the Civil Rights Movement. A “top lieutenant” to Dr. King is how the Washington Post described him in his obituary. He was seen as a defining architect of core events in that moment, including the 1963 “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.
Mr. Bevel did come back to our offices, two or three times. We talked, didn’t really communicate. He was frustrated that we weren’t interested in his columns, didn’t buy that we would only publish news and opinions specific to Oak Park or River Forest issues. I got frustrated because I was worn down and unsympathetic to a black man who knew Dr. King but wanted to talk about LaRouche. (In fact, by 1992, James Bevel was the vice-presidential candidate to LaRouche’s presidential bid.)
Don’t think I thought about James Bevel until he died in 2008 at age 72. He earned extensive obituaries in all the major papers. I learned more then that explained perhaps the extreme positions he had staked out — maintaining the innocence of James Earl Ray, convicted of an assassination Bevel had witnessed in Memphis, supporting Ronald Reagan and running himself for Congress in Illinois’ 7th District as a Republican, and most heartbreaking, going to jail shortly before his death on a conviction of incest.
A week ago, though, we saw the movie Selma. And in it, James Bevel was restored, through a transfixing performance by Common, to his place at the very center of this movement. A key strategist in planning history-bending events, a confidant to Dr. King, a calm anchor in moments of such unknowable stress, a force in leading Dr. King to his strong and powerful opposition to the Vietnam war.
Who can explain the dichotomy in this man’s life? Certainly not me, who passed on an opportunity to engage with a seminal figure in American history because I was tired and uneducated, lacking both curiosity and Google.
I’d like to have those afternoons in 1981 to do over and do better.