Casualties of War
The civil rights movement now occupies a cozy place in America's collective memory.
Schoolchildren dutifully learn about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat. Civil rights battlegrounds in places like Selma, Alabama, have been turned into tourist stops. Every January, politicians and aging civil rights veterans solemnly gather in front of cameras to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
The platitudes about the movement have become so ingrained in our daily lives that it's easy to forget the desperation that inspired the civil rights struggle. It wasn't just a movement; it was a war. Activists were tortured in jail, beaten by mobs, ostracized by their families. People were murdered.
Some never recovered physically or psychologically from their experiences, says Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Parting the Waters. "They became casualties of war. It was a war in which they were spectacularly triumphant, but they were treated and ignored like it was a war that they lost."
Several of these casualties passed their wounds on. Their pain prevented them from becoming close to their children.
Reverend James Bevel, part of Martin Luther King's inner circle, is no longer on speaking terms with two of his daughters. Others simply kept their grief to themselves. James Forman Sr., former executive director of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), never seemed to know how to speak to his two sons about the trauma he experienced in Mississippi. The daughter of James Zwerg, a Freedom Rider, first learned about the magnitude of her father's suffering from a history textbook.
It was strange to talk to these movement veterans about their personal struggles with their children. When we discussed the politics of the movement, they would effortlessly and eloquently riff about nonviolence and social change. But when I started asking simple questions about their feelings for their children, some would suddenly stop and grasp for words. Their children, however, had plenty to say.
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Chevara Orrin and Bacardi Jackson
Daughters of the Rev. James Bevel
Chevara slammed on her brakes and swerved onto the shoulder of an Atlanta freeway when she heard the radio announcement. Reverend James Bevel, a civil rights activist, was speaking that night in an Atlanta church. She reversed directions and drove there. When she entered the crowded sanctuary, she sat in the front row and locked eyes with Bevel before he rose to speak.
Bevel was accustomed to being center stage. He was a leader in the student sit-in movement during the early 1960s and part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s inner circle. He was one of King's best tacticians, the man whose organizing ability helped give the movement many of its most inspiring victories.
That evening Bevel began preaching a sermon on the Old Testament hero Noah. But suddenly he went off onto another subject — the evils of white people. He compared white people to maggots and declared that white women were only good for use as sex pets or slaves — all the while looking at Chevara in the front row.
Chevara bolted from her chair in the middle of the sermon and fled to a bathroom where she sobbed. There was a lifetime of hurt behind her tears. Bevel is her father, the one-time companion of her white Jewish mother.
Chevara, a caramel-colored thirty-six-year-old woman with high cheekbones, bears a striking resemblance to Bevel. Years after the incident at that Atlanta church, her voice still rises in anger when she recalls the moment. "He was negating my very existence," she says. "I wanted to stand up and shout to him, 'How dare you? Here I am your own daughter, the result of a relationship between you and a white woman.' I was just devastated."
Bevel is a legend among students of the civil rights movement. But he's no hero to Chevara or to her sister, Bacardi. Both say their father never provided for them while they endured a childhood marked by homelessness, welfare, and hand-me-down clothes. He was too preoccupied with his place in the movement to notice them. "He doesn't know my favorite food," Chevara says. "He doesn't know where I went to high school. He doesn't know what my college degree is in. He doesn't even know when I was born."
I meet the sisters in the suburban Atlanta home they share. As I talk to them about their father, their moods alternate between anger and laughter as they recount the exchanges they've had with him. "He's great in many ways and he's done some great things," thirty-three-year-old Bacardi says. "But he's always failed miserably as a father."
Bevel, sixty-seven, now lives in Chicago. He doesn't apologize for his absence. He says the movement was all-consuming. Sacrifices had to be made. His daughters could have seen him more if they had decided to become activists like him. "They don't understand my vocation. My vocation is to deal with the salvation, education, and liberation of American people. That's all I worked on. Apart from this, I don't exist. In order to be with me, you have to work on this."
Bevel's dedication as a parent may be questioned, but not his place in civil rights history. He is best known today for his role in the 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, which was then considered the South's most segregated city. The campaign had stalled because Martin Luther King Jr. had run out of demonstrators willing to fill the jails. Bevel proposed a daring move: use children as demonstrators. He persuaded King to accept his strategy, over great opposition from King's advisors.
The audacious move, which some dubbed "the Children's Miracle," became a movement turning point. The images of Birmingham's public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, turning fire hoses and attack dogs against child demonstrators gained international sympathy for the movement. Birmingham's white business leaders agreed to desegregate the city.
Thrust onto the public stage, Bevel became one of the movement's most colorful characters. With his volcanic sermons and the Jewish skullcap and overalls that were his uniform, he was known as one of King's "crazy people" — the ones pushing the movement to go in bold directions.
"He's like an Old Testament prophet," Taylor Branch says. "He hears voices. Sometimes they are the voices of genius and sometimes they are the voices of lunacy."
Bevel's eccentric nature seemed pathological at times, says John Lewis, a friend of Bevel's from the sit-in movement and now a Georgia state representative. He says the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) banned Bevel after he once locked himself into a hotel room with a group of college coeds, declared himself a prophet, urinated in a glass, and ordered them to drink its contents to prove their loyalty.
Like other movement activists, Bevel appeared to have lost his way after King was killed, Lewis says. "Bevel had so much hope, so much optimism. I think it was too much for him and many others when King died."
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Susanne Jackson, a rumpled, heavyset woman with a wary manner, met Bevel in 1965 when he came to Chicago to join the SCLC's campaign for open housing. Jackson was an antiwar activist, and as Bevel moved into antiwar protesting, they began an on-again, off-again six-year relationship.
Jackson says she was impressed by Bevel's intelligence and charisma. She liked the way he treated women. "He would listen to women and utilize their ideas, which was not typical of many of the movement's leaders of the time. He could be intense about understanding you and zeroing in on where you were coming from."
Four years into their relationship, Jackson gave birth to Chevara; two years later she had Bacardi. Chevara was named after the popular 1960s revolutionary, Che Guevara. Bacardi, born on New Year's Eve, was named after the rum favored by holiday revelers.
Those names weren't traditional, but neither was Jackson's relationship with Bevel. Like many 1960s activists, by forging an interracial relationship they were challenging not only the era's notion of race, but also its rules about raising children.
The daughters called their parents by their first names. They lived alternately on a communal farm and in a communal home with Black Panther Party members. Their home life was unstable. They only lived briefly with Bevel. He didn't hold a steady job and was often away taking part in demonstrations. Jackson decided her daughters would have more stability if she raised them alone.
She moved to Memphis and took jobs with the National Urban League and the city's black newspaper. But income from those jobs wasn't enough. She eventually had to go on welfare to support her daughters, who sometimes had nothing to eat but farina, peanut butter sandwiches, and powdered milk.
Bevel wasn't with them during their struggles. They say he rarely visited. He never attended any of their birthday parties. He didn't attend their graduations. He rarely called.
Bacardi's first memory of her father dates from the age of five, when he took her to a meeting of movement veterans at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (the place where King was assassinated). "He seemed like he was important," she says. "People knew who he was and they said he had done something great."
When Bacardi was ten, Bevel came to Memphis for a visit. She says he showed no interest in her personal life. Instead he would lecture her about his greatness, comparing himself to Jesus and Zeus. "I didn't like him at all. He talked about how great he was. He was trying to come in and impart wisdom. But for me, it was like, 'Who are you to come in and tell us anything? You don't know me.'"
At the same time, Bacardi developed a grudging respect for her father after hearing him speak. "He's a very charismatic man," she says. "People are really impressed when they hear him speak. He can silence a room."
Bevel's daughters didn't have much opportunity to witness that charisma firsthand. They say they saw their father on only three extended occasions during their entire childhood.
Jackson would plead with Bevel to visit their daughters, but he was too wrapped up in the movement. "I would tell him, 'you should talk to your children,'" she says. "He would not disagree but he would say it wasn't feasible."
Jackson didn't consider taking Bevel to court for child support when her daughters were still minors. She feared the news that Bevel was in an interracial relationship would limit his effectiveness as a movement leader. "At that point in time, it would have been a major civil rights issue because of race and everything related to it. I didn't think that would be appropriate. And I wasn't sure I was going to be believed."
The sisters began to attend public school in inner-city Memphis during the 1970s. Both faced pressure from an unexpected front: they were teased by black kids for having a white mother.
Chevara says her mother was treated worse. She was often called "honky," "white trash," or "bitch" by blacks in public. Some even threw bottles and cans at her mother — sometimes when she and her sister were present — as they drove by in cars.
The taunts didn't drive a wedge in the family, each member says today. The sisters say their mother became their hero. She took them to countless marches and city council meetings. She gave them handmade black history books, books she copied by hand after borrowing them from the library because she couldn't afford to buy them.
"Everything that I know about the struggle — not just the civil rights movement, but the human rights movement, about economic issues, women's issues — all those are because of Sue," says Chevara.
Both daughters went to college on full scholarships. Chevara graduated from the University of Memphis, Bacardi from Stanford University and Yale Law School. Today, Chevara, a publicist who also volunteers at two child abuse prevention organizations, lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. Bacardi is an attorney for King & Spalding, one of Atlanta's top law firms.
When the two sisters became adults, they decided to seek out their father. Bevel had faded from public view, emerging only to attend civil rights commemorative events. By the 1990s, though, Bevel was back in the news. In 1992 he became the vice presidential running mate of Lyndon LaRouche, a maverick politician. In 1994 he allied himself with another controversial figure, Louis Farrakhan. He began writing a column for the Nation of Islam's Final Call newspaper. A year later, he persuaded Farrakhan to hold the Million Man March on Washington.
It was then that Chevara made her first attempt to contact her father. When she heard over an Atlanta radio station that her father was going to speak at an Atlanta church, she drove there hoping for reconciliation.
But she never had the talk with her father she intended. She became so angry when her father attacked white women from the pulpit that she left the church in tears. When she called her father later that night to ask about his comments, he attributed his remarks to his alliance with Farrakhan.
Bacardi contacted her father the same year, sending a four-page typed letter to him from Yale.
The letter veered from bitterness and sadness to a matter-of-fact summary of her life. She greeted him with "Daddy Dearest." "I also have no illusions that as much as I long to have a real father," she wrote, "a million lies would never transform you into one."
Still, a tentative dialogue followed between Bacardi and her father. They spoke by phone. He visited her briefly in Atlanta.
But Bacardi says her father would never apologize for his absence. In one of the last letters she received from him when she was in college, Bevel acknowledged that the wall that separates him and his daughters may never be removed, but that distance could not be his major concern. He loved her, he said, but only "as I do all people, and I will work for your health, interest, rights, and needs as I do for all people...."
Bevel then scolded his daughter for her political apathy. He told her that when he was her age, he didn't pursue personal success like she did because he chose to fight against segregation. He ended the letter by saying that he could "no longer look for my children to work for the liberation of our people."
Bacardi abandoned her attempt to reconcile with her father. "He speaks in political theory all the time," she says, shaking her head. "He is never out of that mode."
Bacardi and Chevara discovered something else about their father. Whenever they attended various civil rights movement commemorative events, they ran into people who said that they too were Bevel's children. These meetings became so common that Chevara and Bacardi organized a meeting of the people who claimed to be Bevel's children. After comparing notes and talking to extended family, the daughters estimate that their father has at least seventeen children.
* * *
After talking to his daughters in Atlanta, I fly to Chicago to meet Bevel. He owns a dry-cleaning shop today. He says he's still fighting for social progress. He runs a program to help at-risk youth and teaches effective parenting. Bevel runs both his business and his program out of a dilapidated building in a rundown part of Chicago's South Side next to rail-road tracks, a check-cashing business, and a sub shop. The wail of police sirens and train whistles constantly fills the air.
Bevel greets me warily, looking me up and down for a moment without saying anything. He still dresses as if he's on the frontlines of Birmingham: black beret, overalls, and sandals. He carries a battered briefcase, which contains yellowed news clippings and history books in which he's underlined the passages written about him.
When I start to ask Bevel about his daughters, he shrugs me off. He doesn't want to talk about his personal life. He prefers politics. While his thirty-three-year-old wife, Erika, takes notes, Bevel jumps before a blackboard and furiously starts drawing diagrams to explain his political philosophy.
After hearing his political views, I insist on asking questions about his daughters. "How many children do you have?" I inquire.
"Well, the computer broke down," he says, smiling. "I don't get into counting things like that."