Young Americans may recall the courageous Will D. Campbell from his reincarnation as the bespectacled pastor Will B. Dunn in the comic strip Kudzu, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette. Veterans of the civil rights era recall Campbell as a renegade preacher who was the only white person present when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Campbell also was one of the four people who escorted black students first integrating the Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools.
Many know Campbell from his writings. Among his published works are his beloved autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, and a collection of his essays on activism: Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance.
When he died, a lengthy New York Times obituary began: The Rev. Will D. Campbell, a renegade preacher and author who joined the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, quit organized religion and fought injustice with nonviolent protests and a storyteller’s arsenal of autobiographical tales and fictional histories, died on Monday night in Nashville. He was 88. The Times continued with a recitation of historical details.
ReadTheSpirit invited one of Campbell’s friends—the well-known peace activist and writer Ken Sehested—to capture some lesser-known memories of this heroic prophet.
‘Don’t Confuse Your Job with Your Vocation’
A Remembrance of Will D. Campbell
by KEN SEHESTED
I was a stranger in a strange land, having left behind a Baylor University football scholarship for the alluring but intimidating environs of New York University’s Greenwich Village campus in Manhattan. I was so over being who I was, so eager for, if frightened by, what was to come. Odd that it was there, so far from home, that I should encounter the iconoclastic voice of a fellow Baptist-flavored Southerner whose testimony would come to profoundly impact the tenor of my own.
“Here’s somebody you should know about,” said Dr. Carse, my religion department mentor, as he tossed an open copy of Newsweek magazine across his desk. The upturned page contained a one-column profile of self-styled bootleg preacher, the Rev. Will Campbell. I quickly scanned the article through to the final paragraph which nearly jumped off the page, ending with a quote from Will: “Jesus is Lord, goddamnit!”
He certainly wasn’t a typical clergyman. On many occasions, since I got to know Will, I’ve heard him say: “Been a long time since I was a Southern Baptist preacher—but I’ll always be a Baptist preacher from the South.”
Will’s name may not be widely known, but his presence was deeply felt, and in the oddest assortment of circles, including civil rights activists, literary Illuminati, death-penalty opponents and the patrons of Gass’s honkytonk near Will’s home in Mt. Juliet, Tenn.
Will and his wife Brenda took my wife and me there for a catfish sandwich one weekend when we were guests. As soon as we ordered dinner Will got up and began to make the rounds of people he knew at several other tables, standing and chatting at most, occasionally pulling up a chair for longer chats. “He’s doing his pastoral visitations,” Brenda said, with a smile. The local band that evening invited “Brother Will” to join them as guest soloist for their last song before intermission, and Will obligingly belted out that country favorite, Red Necks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.
That’s one of the important lessons he taught me: that you might be a redneck if white liberals got rich making fun of you. The other really important lesson, from my earlier, first visit with him as a newly minted Master of Divinity from northern, liberal Union Seminary was: “Don’t confuse your job with your vocation.”
Will D. Campbell:
Ignoring death threats & vowing: ‘Gotta love ’em all.’
Campbell’s eccentricities are legendary. He describes his ordination into the Southern Baptist ministry at age 17 in his award-winning, Brother to a Dragonfly, which has been described as “part autobiography, part elegy for Campbell’s brother, part oral history of the Civil Rights Movement.” Born not just in Mississippi, but southern Mississippi, he would later be the only white invited to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (through which Martin Luther King Jr. would galvanize much of the modern Civil Rights Movement’s history). He grew so close to King that Campbell was the only white allowed in the mourning circle outside Dr. King’s Lorraine Motel room in Memphis following the assassination that set numerous US cities ablaze in despair. (The New York Times obituary shows Campbell in a moving photo of that grief-stricken circle, standing beside Ralph Abernathy.)
In a high-profile debate over the question of capital punishment, Campbell took to the podium—after his debate opponent’s learned, lengthy defense of the practice—to utter a one-sentence response: “I just think it’s [capital punishment] tacky.” Then he sat down.
Campbell received death threats for his outspoken opposition to segregation when he served as chaplain of the University of Mississippi; he counseled Nashville students—including telling them they could be killed, which they nearly were—as they planned to pick up the Freedom Ride that had been disrupted by a Birmingham, Ala., mob attack. Yet he carried out pastoral ministry to infamous Ku Klux Klan leaders, infuriating close allies by insisting that “if you’re gonna love one, you gotta love ‘em all.”
Will knew that red necks were the mark of white tenant farmers and laborers who knew nothing of the wealth accumulated by the nation’s (and not just the South’s) moneyed elites. Personally, I suspect Will would be privately pleased and vocally horrified that the New York Times assigned Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert D. McFadden to write that long obituary. I have witnessed a few moments when recognition—a feeling of being welcomed and celebrated by kindred folk—was an experience of surprised delight that showed in his face. None of us can be exiles everywhere and all the time. Yet he constantly ridiculed notoriety of every sort, savaged institutions of every cut and cloth, and few riled him more than fawning fans.
He was, as John Leonard wrote so long ago in his New York Times review of Brother to a Dragonfly, “a brave man who doesn’t like to talk about it….” Similarly, Rep. John Lewis, living icon of the Civil Rights Movement era, tweeted on the news of Will’s passing, “He never received the recognition he truly deserved.”
Hearing such, I can imagine Will pausing his heavenly choir rehearsal of Red Necks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer long enough to grouse, “Yes, John, that’s just the point. Mr. Jesus didn’t say ‘blessed are you who find fame for your trouble.’ Trouble? What trouble?”
Ken Sehested is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC, and author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public. Both Ken Sehested and Rep. John Lewis are part of Blessed Are the Peacemakers, a book with many profiles of heroes from the civil rights era.