Author’s note: This reflection on Will D. Campbell (1924-2013) is offered in remembrance of his life and ministry on the anniversary of his birth on July 18.
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 James 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 Will Campbell.
I quickly scanned the article through to the final paragraph which nearly jumped off the page, ending with a quote from Campbell: “Jesus is Lord, goddamnit!”
His 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, Tennessee.
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, occasionally pulling up a chair for longer conversation.
“He’s doing his pastoral visitations,” Brenda said, with a smirky smile. The local band that evening invited “Bro. 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.”
Prior to that initial in-person visit, Will gave me one of the most significant blessings a young writer could receive.
A few weeks after my review of his book Brother to a Dragonfly was published, to my great astonishment, I got a letter from Will, typed on what was obviously an ancient manual typewriter. It was a thank you note.
“… At first I resolved that I would not read reviews,” he wrote. “Being fully human, fully sinner, when they began telling me that the reviews were favorable, I broke that resolution. ‘But, by god,’ I said, ‘I won’t be stupid enough to respond to any of them.’ Now I am breaking that resolution, though I believe for the very first time. “
“I break it for a number of reasons. I could say that I responded because you obviously understood what the book is about, and that was not the case with all reviewers. … But I am sure that the real reason is because of who you are — yes, ‘FAMILY.’ I am no longer a Southern Baptist preacher. But I will be, for so long as I live, a Baptist preacher of the South. There is a difference.”
He went on to talk about his identity with our early Baptist forebears — before, as he wrote, “we went to Baal-Peor and became like the things we detested” (referencing Hosea 9:10), especially on the Anabaptist side. By that time, he was fully exiled from every Baptist institution (indeed, just about every Christian institution).
Then he closed by saying, “I am grateful to you for pasting a small snapshot [of me] in the back of the family album.”
About 15 years later, after speaking to a Baptist Peace Fellowship summer conference, he wrote again (and returned an honorarium check I’d sent), this time one hand-written sentence saying, “They’re ain’t enough of us to take money from one another.”
Campbell’s eccentricities are legendary.
A small-town Mississippi native, at age 17 he was ordained to the ministry by a Southern Baptist church in 1940, his Brother to a Dragonfly novel won in 1977 the Lillian Smith Prize in fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
He would later be the only white person in attendance at 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).
And he was the only white person allowed in the mourning circle outside King’s Lorraine Motel room in Memphis following the assassination that set numerous U.S. cities ablaze in despair.
In a high profile debate at a university over the question of capital punishment, Campbell took to the podium — after his debate partner’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.
Will received death threats for his outspoken opposition to segregation when he served as chaplain of the University of Mississippi. He accompanied African American children attempting to integrate a Little Rock, Arkansas, school. And he counseled Nashville students as they planned to pick up the Freedom Ride, which had been disrupted by a Birmingham, Alabama, mob attack.
Yet, he carried out pastoral ministry to infamous Ku Klux Klan leaders, infuriating his closest allies by insisting that “if you’re gonna love one, you gotta love ‘em all.”
Will knew that rednecks 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. For another account of the origins of the term “redneck,” see The Battle of Blair Mountain by Evan Andrews.
Personally, I suspect Will would be privately pleased and vocally horrified that the New York Times assigned a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to write his obituary.
I have witnessed a few moments when recognition — a feeling of being welcomed and celebrated by kindred — was an experience of surprised delight that showed in his face.
None of us can be exiles everywhere and all the time. Yet, Will 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, an 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?
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.