Rev. Will D. Campbell, Maverick Minister in Civil Rights Era, Dies at 88
Henry Groskinsky/Time & Life Pictures, via Getty Images
Published: June 4, 2013
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.
A family friend, John Egerton, confirmed the death. He said Mr. Campbell had moved to a nursing home in Nashville from his family farm near Mount Juliet, Tenn., after a stroke in 2011.
Mr. Campbell, one of the few white clerics with an extensive field record as a civil rights activist, wrote a score of books that explored the human costs of racism and the contradictions of Christian life in the segregated South, notably in a memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly” (1977), a National Book Award finalist.
A knot of contradictions himself, he was a civil rights advocate who drank whiskey with Klansmen, a writer who layered fact and fiction, and a preacher without a church who presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals and graveyards for a flock of like-minded rebels that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel.
Most of his scattered “congregation,” however, were poor whites and blacks, plain people alienated from mainstream Christianity and wary of institutions, churches and governments that stood for progress but that in their view achieved little. He once conducted a funeral for a ghost town, Golden Pond, Ky., where the residents had been removed in the late 1960s to make way for a Tennessee Valley Authority project.
After a fashion, he was also an eccentric voice of wisdom in the funny papers — the model for the Rev. Will B. Dunn, the bombastic preacher with the broad-brimmed clerical hat in “Kudzu,” Doug Marlette’s syndicated comic strip about rural Southerners.
Followers and friends called Mr. Campbell hilarious, profound, inspiring and apocalyptic, a guitar-picking, down-home country boy who made moonshine and stomped around his Tennessee cabin in cowboy boots and denim uttering streams of sacred and profane commentary that found their way into books, articles, lectures and sermons.
“Brother Will, as he was called by so many of us who knew him, made his own indelible mark as a minister and social activist in service to marginalized people of every race, creed and calling,” former President Jimmy Carter said.
The son of Mississippi cotton farmers, Mr. Campbell grew up in a backwater of segregated schools, churches and cracker-barrel country stores where men chewed tobacco and spat bigotry. He was ordained a Baptist minister at 17 and attended three colleges and Yale Divinity School before embarking on an unsatisfying life as a small-town pastor and then chaplain at the University of Mississippi. He left Ole Miss amid death threats over his integrationist views.
As a race-relations troubleshooter for the National Council of Churches from 1956 to 1963, he joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis and other civil rights luminaries in historic confrontations across the South.
Mr. Campbell was the only white person invited by Dr. King to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1957. Months later, Mr. Campbell helped escort nine black students through angry crowds in an attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (The students were turned away by mob violence, but succeeded the next day with an escort of federal troops.)
In 1961, he counseled and accompanied Freedom Riders of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who integrated interstate bus travel at the cost of beatings by white mobs in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala.
And in 1963, he joined Dr. King’s campaign of boycotts, sit-ins and marches in Birmingham, one of America’s most segregated cities. In scenes that stunned the nation, protesters were met with snarling police dogs and high-pressure water hoses.
“If it hits you right, the pressure from a fire hose can break your back,” Mr. Campbell said years later. “I remember seeing adults and children hit and rolling along the sidewalk like pebbles at high tide.”
Later in the 1960s, after appeals to Christian churches in the South to end segregation in their own ranks and actively fight discrimination, Mr. Campbell abandoned organized religion, though not his faith. He accused Southern Protestant churches in particular of standing silent in the face of bigotry.
Widening his horizons in the 1960s, he protested American involvement in the Vietnam War, helped draft resisters find sanctuaries in Canada, spoke against capital punishment and turned against politics, government and institutions in general for failing to provide solutions to the nation’s social problems.
His belief that Christ died for bigots as well as devout people prompted his contacts with the Ku Klux Klan, and he visited James Earl Ray in prison after the 1968 assassination of Mr. Campbell’s friend Dr. King. He was widely criticized for both actions.
In later years, Mr. Campbell campaigned for equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, and turned increasingly to writing. “Brother to a Dragonfly” was both an elegy to his brother, Joe, who died after years of alcoholism and drug addiction, and a memoir of the civil rights era and its bombings, murders and terrifying calls in the night.
“Will D. Campbell is a brave man who doesn’t like to talk about it,” John Leonard wrote in a review of the book for The New York Times, “one of a handful of white Southerners — like P. D. East, Ralph McGill, James Silver, Charles Morgan and Claude Sitton, all of whom appear in these pages — who Mr. Campbell says stood with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fanny Lou Hamer and John Lewis in the worst of times.”
Will Davis Campbell was born on July 18, 1924, in Amite County, Miss., to Lee and Hancie Campbell. At 5, he survived a near-fatal case of pneumonia. He and his sister and two brothers attended local schools, and he went to Louisiana College before joining the Army in 1942. He was a combat medic in the South Pacific in World War II.
In 1946, he married Brenda Fisher. They had a son, Webb, and two daughters, Penny and Bonnie. They survive him, as do four grandchildren.
After earning a degree in English from Wake Forest College in 1950 and a year at Tulane University, Mr. Campbell graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1952. His two years at a small Baptist church in Taylor, La., dissuaded him from a pastoral career; two more as a chaplain at Ole Miss coincided with his growing opposition to segregation.
After his years in the civil rights movement, he directed the Committee of Southern Churchmen and for decades published Katallagete, its quarterly journal of politics and social change, whose title referred to a biblical passage on reconciliation. He wrote books at his farm near Mount Juliet and traveled widely, lecturing and ministering to followers who shared his distrust of institutions.
His books included critiques of modern Christianity, “Race and the Renewal of the Church” (1962) and “Up to Our Steeples in Politics” (1970); spiritual-historical novels, “The Glad River” (1982) and “Cecelia’s Sin” (1983); memoirs, “Forty Acres and a Goat” (1986) and “Crashing the Idols: The Vocation of Will D. Campbell” (2010, with Richard C. Goode); and various biographies, histories and children’s books.
In 2000, Mr. Campbell received the National Endowment for the Humanities medal from President Bill Clinton and was profiled in a PBS documentary, “God’s Will,” narrated by Ossie Davis.