The Rev. James L. Bevel, 72, a fiery top lieutenant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a force behind civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, whose erratic behavior and conviction on incest charges tarnished his legacy, died Friday in Virginia of pancreatic cancer.
"Jim Bevel was Martin Luther King's most influential aide," civil rights historian David Garrow said. He cited Mr. Bevel's "decisive influence" on the Birmingham "children's crusade" of 1963 that helped revive the movement, the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and King's increased outspokenness against the Vietnam War.
Mr. Bevel, an ordained Baptist minister, came to prominence while he was Alabama project coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a rights organization led by King.
Mr. Bevel was respected as a preacher as much as a strategist. In an interview, Jesse Jackson called him a "creative genius," while Barnard College sociologist Jonathan Rieder, a King expert, said Mr. Bevel "was as brilliant an orator and more inventive than King."
Mr. Bevel grew active in the antiwar movement, once suggesting an "international peace army" to unite civil rights and antiwar activists.
King's final Sunday sermon, at Washington National Cathedral, focused on the war; days later, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated in Memphis. Mr. Bevel, who was standing in the hotel parking lot below the balcony where King was shot, helped lead many of King's unfinished projects.
After King's death, Mr. Bevel fell into a long association with fringe movements. He was the 1992 vice presidential running mate of independent candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., who was then in federal prison serving a sentence for mail fraud and income-tax evasion.
In April, a Loudoun County, Va., judge convicted him of having sex in the early 1990s with his then-teenage daughter, and he was sentenced in October to 15 years in prison.