It has been more than a year since I sat with my older brother at my father’s side, watching him slowly succumb to pancreatic cancer. At the age of seventy-two, James Bevel had seen and experienced more than most men. As I looked at him, I thought about the father he was to me, the civil rights leader he was to many, and the flawed and troubled man whose fate seemed to coincide with one of the subjects in the great Greek tragedies he enjoyed so much.
My father was from the same generation as the grandparents of many of my peers. It is a struggle for people of my generation to understand how far African Americans have come since the days of slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow, and the black freedom movement. In the era of Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, and other daily distractions, few take time to reflect on the struggles that shaped our present and future. When I was born in 1985, my father was forty-nine years old, and most people considered the movement to be finished. Yet, as his son, I was constantly reminded of what it took to get to where we are today.
As my older brother and I sat at our father’s side, we sang the hymns and freedom songs he had taught us when we were kids. I guess our musical tribute was fitting; it was akin to giving honor to a great general or statesman. But, I also saw remnants of the skinny farm boy in old photos, the James Bevel who picked cotton as a sharecropper with his seventeen siblings in Itta Bena, Mississippi.
My father was a prime mover of the civil rights revolution. As a top leader of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he organized five major campaigns of the civil rights movement. The most famous was the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963. When President John Kennedy criticized the involvement of children in the movement, my father threatened to march the kids all the way from Birmingham to Washington, D.C. When, in the 1990s, I traveled with him through Alabama and Mississippi, visiting his old comrades, churches, and family members, I stayed awake all night, hugging my seat in fear we would be ambushed and my father taken from me.
Because of his old battle stories, I was terrified of the South. A local Klan group once planned to capture him. He and a companion were heading to a town in Mississippi to organize voters when three of the tires on his old, used car went flat. A lone black man in a horse and buggy, whom my father believed was an angel, pulled over and offered to drive him into town. Lying in the back of the carriage, he and his companion fell asleep. The carriage rolled past the Klan’s would-be ambushers, who, he later learned, had been waiting for him just a few miles from where his car had stopped.
Behind every movement story my father told, there was a principle he wished to impart. In this case, it was how a man must live a principled and upright life so that God could use him. His interpretation of the event was that God had intervened on his behalf.
“Acknowledge God in all your ways and he will direct your path,” he quoted from the Bible.
Although many civil rights activists returned to civilian life, for my father, the movement never died. He preached that if black people decided to stand up for themselves, no one could hold them down. “Enoch, you must decide to be a father,” he told me one day while we were driving through the ghetto on Chicago’s South Side. “You must decide to be a brother and a husband. You must decide to walk with God. Once you decide to be these things, you’ll realize you cannot stand aside and do nothing when your children or any other child is being miseducated or the community looks like this.”
During my final day with him, even though there was a portable urinal chair next to his bed, my father walked the fifteen or so feet to the bathroom. A proud man and unashamed of his nakedness, he accepted our assistance. But his frailness made me cry. My bone structure was identical to his, and I thought about the day when my own children might have to help me in a similar way. Once in the room, he looked up at me standing in the doorway and smiled proudly. ”How’re you doing, Mr. Enoch?” he said, ignoring my tears. I smiled back, and responded, “I’m all right, dad.”
Revisiting my father’s struggles has given me strength. In college, I longed for the familial and financial support many of my peers enjoyed. But I realized the work as a server that I had to do on weekends and nights to pay for books and food paled in comparison to the work my father did in the fields of the Mississippi Delta and in a steel mill in Cleveland. He overcame his beginnings and set the historical groundwork for me to attend an elite university.
So I decided it was fruitless to compare myself with my peers at Georgetown. Many had a safety net to use if they ever needed it, but I was carried by a legacy that would not allow me to fall. With the support of my thirteen loving siblings, I was the only son of James Bevel to become a college graduate.
At the same time, I had to wrestle with my father’s demons, which I first heard about in 1996. They led him to abuse several of his daughters, and we sought to prevent him from having the opportunity to abuse my younger sister, who was just ten at the time. When my father was a kid an older sister had sexually abused him, and we decided that we had to stop the cycle. This was a rite of passage I had not anticipated; though the scars are not so visible on the surface, the wounds are still healing. At times, when my father awoke from his pain, I could see he did not entirely trust me. “Why would you sign onto those affidavits?” he asked me once, referring to the charges of molestation my sisters had made against him.
I could never answer his question directly; I did not want to confront a man I still respected and loved. When I first heard the charges, I was about twelve, and I quickly dismissed them as slander. But later, I learned that my sisters were telling the truth. “Well dad, they presented charges against you and you never addressed the issues,” I told him. “We came to your home and tried to solve this issue as a family, in private; despite our resolve, you denied the charges and forced us to present our case in court.”
In November 2005, nine of my siblings and I decided we could not allow our younger sister to live in the same house in Selma, Alabama, as our father. We wrestled with the backlash and embarrassment we would face and the terrible damage it would do to our father’s legacy.
The irony of the situation was clear: we would be confronting our father and demanding the custody of our younger sister in the same town where, forty years earlier, he had led the campaign for voting rights. In Selma, my siblings and I met with our father. I am sure it was a shock to him, for it was the first time so many of his children were congregated with him. When confronted, he never really denied the charges, and after hours of his evasive talking, plus numerous sycophantic disruptions on the part of members of his community, he essentially said that the decision to give up custody was his wife’s. When she refused to give up custody, the next step was clear: we had to go to court. Thus my idol had fallen, and realizing that fact shook me to the core.
I began to suspect the truth of everything I had learned from my father. In school, I felt ashamed and, to my unsuspecting friends, I became distant. In the hospice room with my father, however, I could only sit with my head between my knees at the foot of his bed. In the background, my brother’s beautiful singing filled the room. Sometimes a tear would escape, but otherwise, I cried alone. Perhaps, deep inside, I always knew my father was a deeply flawed man. The failings of one’s parents is a common theme in our lives; it resonates loudly in President Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father. A close friend said about his own father that “he had many imperfections, but if I dwelled on them, I would alienate myself from myself and, in so doing, I will lose all that I learned from him.”
When I was about eight or nine, my father, for the first time, failed to follow a principle he had carefully imparted to me. So I did what he had taught me to do: I protested. Ever since I could remember, my father had been a vegetarian, and he raised me to be one too. But while having dinner with some associates at a restaurant in Omaha, he placed a piece of chicken on his plate. Shocked, I loudly objected and then stood up and moved to another table to eat my vegetables by myself.
There is a song called “The Living Years” by the band Mike and the Mechanics that my father loved. He would often play it on repeat for hours as we drove. Perhaps it reminded him of the relationship he had with his own father, whom he adored. In part, the lyrics reflect on how children blame the generations before them, in particularly our fathers, and how we, the following generations, feel the pressure and frustration of our parents, being held hostage by their dreams, hopes, and fears. The song ends “I just wish I could have told him in the living years.”
The year since my father passed has been a reflective one for me. It was also the year of the inauguration of the first African American president and the year I graduated from college—events my father influenced but did not live to see. Contrary to that lyric, I will not ”blame” my father; I have learned to forgive him. Instead of placing blame, I took responsibility.
Enoch Bevel is the youngest son of James Luther Bevel. He graduated from Georgetown University in 2009 and works in Washington, DC.