updated 4/7/2008 8:56:56 PM ET 2008-04-08T00:56:56

A daughter of a civil rights icon who served as a top lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr. testified Monday that her father regularly molested her beginning when she was 6 years old.

The Rev. James L. Bevel pleaded not guilty to a charge of incest before jury selection began Monday. Prosecutors have said he had sex with a teenage daughter years ago, and told her the sex was part of religious training.

The daughter testified she grew up in a communal lifestyle in which she regularly saw her father having sex with women and she came to perceive her own molestation as normal.

She also testified that she and her siblings did not call Bevel “Dad” but instead referred to him as “Rev” or “Jim.” She said she told her mother in a written letter that her father was molesting her.

Bevel said to have 14 children
The mother “handed (the letter back) to me and said I spelled ’molest’ wrong,” the daughter testified.

The Associated Press generally does not identify the victims of sexual abuse. The daughter is one of at least 14 children Bevel has with several different women, according to her testimony on Monday.

During opening statements, public defender Bonnie Hoffman urged jurors not to focus on Bevel’s unconventional lifestyle, or whether he may have committed crimes other than the single incident for which he is charged.

“Get rid of your preconceived notions about how things should be,” Hoffman said.

Prosecutor Gigi Lawless told jurors that the testimony “is going to be one of the most horrific things you’ve ever heard. ... This case is about betrayal.”

Prosecutors have said that incest occurred numerous times and in numerous places, but that charges were brought in Virginia because it does not have a statute of limitations for incest.

An ex-wife of Bevel testified that he instructed his family and followers in the commune that it was parents’ obligation to “sexually orientate” their children — meaning in her mind that they were to have sex with them.

“I felt very repulsed by it,” said the ex-wife, who is also the mother of the daughter who testified Monday.

Civil rights icon turned Republican

Bevel, 71, was a leading figure in the civil rights movement and was with King when he was assassinated 40 years ago. He also is credited with helping to conceive and organize the Million Man March.

In the 1980s, Bevel became active in Republican Party politics and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1984.

Prosecutors said in pretrial hearings that they have received calls from around the country since Bevel’s arrest in June from women who claimed they were victimized by him.

The daughter is expected to continue her testimony Tuesday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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