An Homage to James Bevel (1936-2008)

James Bevel is one of the most influential people in the civil rights movement. Not only did he originate the idea to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 following the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (an event which precipitated Bloody Sunday and the important passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act), but he also gave a very inspirational sermon on the night of Monday, August 27, 1962 at Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church (a church I took a picture of, that I’d like to post soon) that inspired one Fannie Lou Hamer to join the movement and become an instrumental force for social change. The milieu was introduced by biographer Chana Kai Lee in For Freedom’s Sake, who writes:

One hot day in August 1962, an individual in Hamer’s Ruleville [Mississippi] church stood up and announced that a group of young people would be visiting the area to teach people how to register to vote. The visitors were members of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella coalition of major civil rights organizations—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. The council was established in 1961 for the purpose of promoting cooperation and less competition among organizations with different civil rights agendas in Mississippi. A series of meetings between town folk and COFO representatives, mostly SNCC members, was scheduled to being…Monday, August 27, at Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, the only house of worship in the community that allowed voter registration workers in a forum…
At this COFO-sponsored meeting, the Reverend James Bevel, staff member with SCLC, and three SNCC members, James Forman, Bob Moses, and Reginald Robinson, informed a fascinated audience of its constitutional rights as citizens of the United States and of the state of Mississippi. Specifically, they told the audience that as adults they were all eligible to vote, and more important, eligible to vote out of office those individuals most responsible for keeping them down. Not the least of these was Senator James O. Eastland. Bevel then delivered a stirring sermon, entitled “Discerning the Signs of the Time,” based on a Bible passage, Luke 12:54. The sermon called on everyone to recognize the signs of the times and to act on them much as one would see clouds forming in the sky and prepare for coming rain (Lee, 24-25).

When I wrote a biographical play of Ms. Hamer in 2005, I tried to write the sermon that James Bevel gave that night. This I think is a difficult task because I am trying to reconstruct or present the truth, which is so incredibly unknown, and getting more unknown as the folks who were there on that night are moving farther and farther away (like all of us) from that night on Monday, August 27, 1962. Like the biographies that Dr. Lee and Ms. Mills have written, my play on Ms. Hamer’s life is still largely speculative. I am speculating on what happened and as such, this biographical play (with the exception of documented speeches that were Ms. Hamer’s actual words) is ultimately a work of fiction. I do not know what exactly happened on that night of Monday, August 27, 1962. I do know however that based on Dr. Lee’s biography, that was a night that changed Ms. Hamer’s life forever. It was after that night that she became dedicated to the cause of registering fellow black Southerners to vote. And I know based on the excerpt from Dr. Lee’s biography who was there, and what the topic of the sermon was. In writing this I tried to accomplish what Toni Morrison mentions in her 1984 essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor As Foundation” about “major characteristics of Black art.” She mentions that one of the major characteristics of Black art is something that “should try deliberately to make you stand up and make you feel something profoundly in the same way that a Black preacher requires his congregation to speak, to join him in the sermon, to behave in a certain way, to stand up and to weep and to cry and to accede or to change and to modify—to expand on the sermon that is being delivered.” In the following passage, I tried to write James Bevel’s sermon that I thought would make the Ms. Hamer then in my mind “stand up” or “change” and modify. The following excerpt from the biographical play I wrote is the scene in which I thought Ms. Hamer was changed by James Bevel’s sermon.

Scene 4: Williams Chapel, August 27, 1962.
[The setting is a small church chapel, humid and packed, eager in anticipation for an important sermon by SCLC member and leader, Reverend James Bevel. Fannie Lou is sitting next to Mary Tucker singing with the congregation and join the overall aura of praise in this church. The spiritual, “Jesus Is A Rock In A Weary Land” is being sung. There are random shouts of praise and exultation in the congregation; Fannie Lou and Mary are completely indistinguishable from the overall spirit of worship in the church. After the song, Reverend James Bevel approaches the pulpit.]

Reverend: A weary land, yes Lord, you are a rock in a weary land. Let’s give God some praise right now [congregation applauds]. Lord Jesus [shouting], we worship you, we thank you for health! For strength! We thank you that you’ve allowed us to gather here safely in this chapel for this prayer meeting, ‘cause Lord, you know, we live in a weary land! We need you, Lord! We can’t make it here without you. Amen. [voice gets quieter, as speech becomes casual]. I’m so glad to see all you folks here tonight. I’m a tell you right now, there’s no better place for you to be than here [Mary looks at Fannie]. And I guarantee that you will not be same after tonight. I said you will not be the same after tonight. Grab somebody by the hand [congregation grabs each other’s hands] bow your heads, and lets pray. Father God, we come to you tonight because Lord you know we live in a weary land. There are forces out there Lord [Reverend pauses; random folks in the congregation exclaim their agreement] that try to kill us Lord, and we need your help [much of congregation responds with ‘yes Lord’]. We have been troubled and menaced by the people among whom you have set us down, Lord. And still, we have sung the Lord’s song, Lord, your song, in a weary land! Lord Jesus help us! [even louder exclamations of agreement come from the congregation; Fannie Lou says “Yes Lord.”] We need you here, right now, LORD. Help us, LORD, to do the work you created us here to do. Bless all the members of this congregation, bless SNCC, the NAACP, CORE, the National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as we try to vote and help those like us who are in a weary land, LORD, among people who try to stop us from votin’, Lord, who try and stop us from getting registered[i]. Lord, bless them too. Lord, help us to fear nobody but you Lord. Nobody but you. Bless the understanding of this message tonight, bless the words that come out of my mouth, and bless them as they register, have your angels of protection around us, covering us from any harm, evil, and danger all this we ask in Jesus name, Amen.

Congregation: Amen.

Reverend: Ladies and Gentlemen, please understand, it is no coincidence that we are here speaking to you tonight. It is not by random chance that you decided to come here now, nor is it by chance that the Freedom Riders caught the attention of not only Senator James Eastland but also the Attorney General of the United States Bobby Kennedy. [much slower] Ladies and gentlemen, it is not by mistake that there are people in this here community of Ruleville who have decided—they made up their mind—that they would give shelter and refuge to the freedom riders. You see all these things are happening because they are meant to happen. I need to talk to you about the signs of the times[ii]. Every person in this congregation must be able to discern the signs of the times. Turn your bibles with me to Matthew Chapter sixteen, Matthew chapter sixteen. [The congregation, including Mary, turns to the chapter while Fannie looks on]. Verse one says, “The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would show them a sign from heaven. Verse two says, He answered and said unto them,” wait, let’s stop right here and look at this. Now the bible in verse two says he answered, but what was the question—it didn’t mention the previous question, so what was it?
[The congregation varies from “signs” to “the signs” to “signs of the times” in their responses]

Reverend: Right. What are the signs of the times? That’s the same question a lot of us are asking. We want to have the answers in our way and in our time, but…the answer’s been sitting there in front of our face.
[Congregation exclaims agreement]

Reverend: You see, in order for Jesus to have answered, like the Word says he did, there had to have been a question. The question that the Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us was, ‘what are those signs?’ Folks, Jesus already knew what they were going to ask before they even asked him. The rest of the verse says, ‘He answered and said unto them, when it is evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: for the sky is red. Verse three says, “And in the morning, it will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” In other words, why ask such a question when the answer is staring you in the face? I’m here to tell you tonight, we got to wake up and look at what has been done and start praising God! [Congregation exclaims agreement] Those silly Pharisees and Saducees were asking Jesus for even more signs when he done already multiplied the bread and fed five thousand, he made the blind able to see again, he made the dumb able to speak, he healed the sick! The signs were right in front of their eyes! And tonight I’m telling you all the changes, all the miracles you seein’ round here: the arrests, the Freedom Riders coming through Nashville, Alabama, Mississippi, the sit-ins we havin’, the integration of all some of these places…it’s the signs of the times. You better move with it or get left behind. You go out and you register to vote. Get involved. Start acting like real citizens. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments said you can vote. So stop lettin’ the White Citizens Council stop you. Don’t let them people take away our schools. Stop lettin’ just the white folks vote so that they get all the federal funds. You go out and vote too. Don’t let them steal what you gotta right to. We got people in this neighborhood, in this church, still fussin’ ‘bout everything goin’ on and then got the nerve to ask, “What we gon’ do?” Fool, don’t ask that question! [Congregation laughs]
You just like the Pharisees! With your stupid question! The answer is right in front of your eyes! Look around! Notice how slowly but surely we gettin’ our rights. We got Brown v. Board just a few years ago. Now we got Bob Moses and Jim Forman down here helpin’ folks get registered. We got our own people helping each other. Stop living in bondage! Stop living in bondage! The Word of God says in Matthew chapter ten verse twenty eight, ‘fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’ You fear nobody but God. You hear me? [Congregation exclaims approval] Nobody but God! Stop worryin’ about what white folks gon’ do and start givin’ God praise for what He did and what He gon’ do. I done learned that for myself. When the world tried to put fear in everything else except God. I wanna tell y’all a story if I could. You know, for the rest of my life, I’ll never forget the time my brother in SNCC John Lewis and I sat in one lunch counter on one afternoon, of November 10th of 1960.

Congregation:Go ‘head preacher!

Reverend: John grabbed me to go stage a sit-in at the Krystal Restaurant on Church Street in downtown Nashville. This is the same restaurant where Elmyra Gray and Maryann Morgan who took seats and asked to be served at a white counter, got a bucket of water poured over their heads and detergent poured down their backs and a hose turned on them. [congregation silenced slightly while Reverend gets louder] Then the demons turned on the air conditioner on full blast to try and freeze them out! Just for sitting and asking for service. So me and John saw the signs of the times and took action! As soon as we arrived, the manager came out from the back, wearing his white uniform and chef’s hat. Bernard and the women left, and John and I took two seats. “I’m closed,” the manager told us. “You’ll have to leave.” We glanced at each other. John looked at his watch, a gesture that said it was mid-afternoon, nowhere near closing time. The man pulled out a mop, went over the floor with a couple of wipes, then walked to the front door and locked it. By then the two or three other employees in the place were gathered behind the counter. The manager told them to head out the back and he followed, stopping for a moment to flip on a machine before he left. [Long pause.] The machine was a fumigator. A white cloud of insecticide began filling the room. Within seconds it was so thick we could not see out the front window. I tried the front door. It was locked. The back was locked as well. The fumes were getting thicker by the minute. I kept sittin’ there prayin’ for God to save us. Then the spirit of the Lord came on me and I started preaching, praise God! [congregation increases in volume] How many of you know that when you in the midst of the fiery furnace, you gotta press yourself into the word of God and speak that word! I tell you, I spoke the book of Daniel, where the angel appeared before the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar and warned the people to bend before God or be thrown into the fire and smoke of hell. I said, ‘and whoever falleth not down and worshippeth,’ my eyes squeezed shut, ‘shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.’ Then I started singing. How many of you know like Paul and Silas you got pray and sing to the midnight hour to get your deliverance? Paul and Silas prayed so that the suddenly there was an earthquake, so the immediately the doors were opened, and I tell you as I praying and singing in that restaurant, we could start to hear someone banging on the window and suddenly, hah, praise God, the front door burst open. A rush of cool air came through, along with the shapes of bodies—firemen dressed in full gear[iii]. Give God some praise for deliverance! I said you got to pray to midnight hour to get deliverance! Praise God! Don’t you know that restaurant is serving more black customers, now! Know the times! Know the times! Go with the change! Change! The Lord has called us to change! [Congregation erupts in praise; Fannie hears a distinctive ‘Hallelujah.’ While the environment silences while Fannie speaks in an aside]

Fannie Lou: Tuck, you heard that?

Mary: Heard what? [whispering]

Fannie Lou: Aunt Ella.

Mary: Who?

Fannie Lou: Aunt Ella. Momma.

Mary: No, why? You heard her?

Fannie Lou: Yeah, you ain’t?

Mary: No, but that probably don’t mean she ain’t here [laughs to herself].

Fannie Lou: [Fannie Lou turns around to see her mother, who is invisible to everybody else, dressed in all white standing behind her and identifies her as the woman who just said, “hallelujah.” Lou Ella is dressed in white, from top to bottom, worshipping God with her hands outstretched; however she quickly turns back around before Mary notices staring at her and decides to pretend not seeing her as she continues being enthralled by the sermon.]

Reverend: Stop sittin’ round just expectin’ things to change. You gotta change them! Or else you end up just like the Pharisees, so closed minded they can’t even see what’s in front of them. You got a duty to respond! Ain’t nothin’ gon’ change until you change things! They ran that man Clinton Battle outta town, the best dentist in this part of the world that man was, Clinton Battle. Don’t let him run you out. You see ‘cause he know what he was doing. He knew once we got the vote, that changes everything. We can put in charge, who we wanna put in charge, that meant the end of us gettin’ the worst of everything. The word of God says in Hosea chapter four, verse six, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge.” Don’t let God destroy you! You go out there and run with those times. Get what belongs to you! Make a difference and be the agent of change God called you to be [congregation increases in exultation and excitement]. The word of God says in John chapter 8 verse 32, ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free! [congregation in exultation and excitement and begins clapping loudly] Stop living in bondage! [begins clapping and shouting louder] Get yourself free! [is at is loudest in clapping and shouting] Amen. Amen. Thank you tonight. We want to extend tonight the invitation of voting as I turn it over to my dear brother, SNCC member James Forman.

James: [speaking to the congregation] Good evening everybody.

Congregation: Good evening.

James: We have got to make a difference and get involved. Enough is enough. Everyone one of us in this room is capable and able to vote these people out there out of office. Now what Reverend James said is true: we have the power to vote these racist white leaders out of office. We have the power to do so. If we work together and get registered and vote, you would be surprised to see the difference you can make. Tonight I want to invite you to get registered and brother Moses will explain how you can do that, brother Moses…

[i] Lee, Chana Kai. For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999: 24.

[ii] Moye, J. Todd. Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004: p.97
[iii] Lewis, John with Michael D’Orso. Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998: p.121-122.

My reason for writing this whole biographical play is what Toni Morrison says in a 1987 essay, “The Site of Memory:” She writes: “how I gain access to that interior life is what drives me and is part of this talk which both distinguishes my fiction from autobiographical strategies…It’s a kind of literary archeology: on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site [Williams Chapel on August 27, 1962 in Ruleville, Mississippi] to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.” I was also driven by the personal wish of mine to have been born at least thirty years earlier, so I would be part of a generation of people that were willing to change the destructive mores of the society in which they lived. I needed to gain access to that interior life of Ms. Hamer that helped her become the staunch civil rights advocate that she became. I think I needed this because I was so shocked by the way the then Bush administration was rolling back civil rights and liberties in brazen ways that I thought went unchallenged by most people I knew. While going to the physical structure of the church in 2005 helped me on some level, there was nothing like getting the actual scripture from Dr. Lee that Bevel based his whole sermon on. I found this more helpful than anything because I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life and did not mind trying to write a sermon that would be the sort to influence one Ms. Hamer to join the work that SNCC was doing. Lee writes later that:

“the civil rights workers’ presentation contained new and exciting information for the group. It certainly lit a fire in Hamer, apparently to the point of helping her to ignore or forget her initial response to Tucker’s initial invitation. ‘Until then, I’d never heard of no mass meeting and I didn’t know that a Negro could register and vote.’ The COFO representatives told the eager group that they would have to fill out voter registration applications, which they were taught todo that night. The SNCC members then asked who would be willing to go to the county courthouse in Indianola to secure this most precious of rights. Eighteen people raised their hands and expressed an interest in testing a longstanding practice of excluding blacks from southern politics and thereby limiting their control over their destinies. Before leaving the church, the organizers made sure the volunteers signed their names on a list of those who were going to make that historic step the following Friday, August 31, 1962” (25).

While James Bevel deserves a lot of credit for preaching the sermon that drew Ms. Hamer into the civil rights movement via SNCC, a lot has been made over the past forty year about James Bevel’s encounters with the law, most notably the sexual abuse of his younger daughter that put him in prison several years up to his death. While these issues raise questions about Bevel, they should absolutely not obscure or replace recognition of the very influential and important work he has done in the civil rights movement, including the drawing of Ms. Hamer to the movement as well as originating the Selma-to-Montgomery march. My deepest sympathies extend to all those who suffer sexual or verbal abuse. Certainly if each of us were recognized according to our consistent morality, we would be found failing, just like James Bevel. Nobody should be defined by their weaknesses only. I appreciate James Bevel’s strengths, as they allowed forums of creative protest against the Jim Crow South. His actions have taught me that my faith and pursuit of social justice are one in the same, and are inseparable, and I thank him for his work. –RF.
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