Friday Open Thread ~ "What are you reading?" edition ~ Will Campbell
Rev. Campbell was reportedly the only white person present at the founding in 1957 of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization then led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other major figures in the movement. Initially, some of the black organizers argued against admitting him.
“Let this man in,” said Bayard Rustin, one of the leaders, according to an account published in the Nashville Tennessean. “We need him.”
When King was assassinated in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Rev. Campbell rushed to the scene. Photos captured by a photographer for Life magazine show him standing, weary and seemingly dumbstruck, on the hotel balcony and grieving with the black leaders left to carry on.
Later, Rev. Campbell drew criticism from some in the civil rights movement when he visited James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, in prison, and when he ministered to a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon in jail.
Appreciating Will Campbell, “Preacher to the Damned”
He is not a William Sloane Coffin. Nor is he Billy Graham. He is instead an odd and unsettling combination of the two -- a radical, slow-moving Bible-belt preacher with a hand-carved cane and a floppy Amish hat, meandering his way through the crises of life. He's developed a kind of cult-figure fame in American theology, partly through his books, but mostly through his unpretentious, one-man ministry to the nation's dispossessed. He's an ardent proponent of black civil rights, a friend to the bigots in the Ku Klux Klan, and, most recently, an unlikely champion for the men and women of death row.
He began in the 1950s with the issue of race. First as chaplain at the University of Mississippi, and later as a Deep South staffer for the National Council of Churches, he allied himself with the Civil Rights movement -- traveling the bumpy Southern backroads from one upheaval to the next, from Montgomery to Nashville to St. Augustine, Florida. It's hard to say exactly what he did. He was simply there, moving among the people and offering what he could. In 1957, for example, he was one of three white ministers with Elizabeth Eckford, walking by her side as she and eight other black teenagers made their way through the Little Rock mobs, braving taunts and rocks and bayonetted rifles, seeking to enroll in an all-white school.
Gradually, he became a friend to the leaders of the movement -- Andy Young, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King -- but also to the bright young radicals of lesser charisma, some of them filled with foolhardy courage, others simply quiet and determined, as they drifted into Selma or Marks, Mississippi, defying the wrath of the most brutal South. Campbell was awed by the bravery of it all, and yet he couldn't shake a feeling in the back of his mind -- a troublesome sense that however right and righteous it was, however important that the South be confronted with the sins of its history, there was something simplistic and shortsighted about the whole crusade, some failure to understand, as he would put it later, "that Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well."
So he began to work the other side of the street, mingling with the racists and Klansmen, as well as the blacks, setting out from home in the early morning hours, rumbling through the Delta in his cherry-red pick-up. Armed with a guitar and a Bible and an occasional bottle of Tennessee whiskey, he would point himself toward the flat and muddy fields of Sunflower County, toward the straight and endless rows of picked-over cotton and the barbed-wire fences at Parchman Penitentiary.
The Reverend Will D. Campbell, a "renegade" Baptist preacher whose unorthodox ministry to a far-flung parish of unchurched souls was the signifying hallmark of his long pilgrimage out of the depression-wracked Deep South, died Monday, June 3, 2013, in Nashville from complications following a stroke. He was eighty-eight.
His career-long commitment to the biblically-remembered "least of these" earned for Campbell the praise of a broad range of individuals, from former President Jimmy Carter and country music icon Tom T. Hall to neighbors on his country road in middle Tennessee and inmates at the Riverbend Prison near Nashville.
"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," Carter said. "He used the force of his words and the witness of his deeds to convey a healing message of reconciliation to any and all who heard him."
Hall, who on occasion turned his tour bus to the service of a motley brotherhood of Campbellites on good-deed missions in the southern outback, remembered those occasions and other forays with Campbell as "some of my best days on the road."
"Will was many things to us," he recalled. "Preacher, prophet, picker, poet. He had an uncanny way of making whoever gathered around him feel like they were part of the mix, no matter how much we differed among ourselves."
By Chris Hedges / Cancel Culture, Where Liberalism Goes to Die
The Rev. Will Campbell was forced out of his position as director of religious life at the University of Mississippi in 1956 because of his calls for integration. He escorted Black children through a hostile mob in 1957 to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. He was the only white person that was invited to be part of the group that founded Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped integrate Nashville’s lunch counters and organize the Freedom Rides.
But Campbell was also, despite a slew of death threats he received from white segregationists, an unofficial chaplain to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He denounced and publicly fought the Klan’s racism, acts of terror and violence and marched with Black civil rights protestors in his native Mississippi, but he steadfastly refused to “cancel” white racists out of his life. He refused to demonize them as less than human. He insisted that this form of racism, while evil, was not as insidious as a capitalist system that perpetuated the economic misery and instability that pushed whites into the ranks of violent, racist organizations.
“During the civil rights movement, when we were developing strategies, someone usually said, ‘Call Will Campbell. Check with Will,’” Rep. John Lewis wrote in the introduction to the new edition of Campbell’s memoir “Brother to a Dragonfly,” one of the most important books I read as a seminarian. “Will knew that the tragedy of Southern history had fallen on our opponents as well as our allies … on George Wallace and Bull Connor as well as Rosa Parks and Fred Shuttlesworth. He saw that it had created the Ku Klux Klan as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That insight led Will to see racial healing and equity, pursued through courage, love, and faith as the path to spiritual liberation for all.”
Jimmy Carter wrote of Campbell that he “tore down the walls that separated white and black Southerners.” And because the Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton was doing the same thing in Chicago, the FBI — which, along with the CIA, is the de facto ally of the liberal elites in their war against Trump and his supporters — assassinated him.
When the town Campbell lived in decided the Klan should not be permitted to have a float in the Fourth of July parade Campbell did not object, as long as the gas and electric company was also barred. It was not only white racists that inflicted suffering on the innocent and the vulnerable, but institutions that place the sanctity of profit before human life.
“People can’t pay their gas and electric bills, the heat gets turned off and they freeze and sometimes die, especially if they are elderly,” he said. “This, too, is an act of terrorism.”
“Theirs you could see and deal with, and if they broke the law, you could punish them,” he said of the Klan. “But the larger culture that was, and still is, racist to the core is much more difficult to deal with and has a more sinister influence.”
Campbell would have reminded us that the demonization of the Trump supporters who stormed the capital is a terrible mistake. He would have reminded us that racial injustice will only be solved with economic justice. He would have called on us to reach out to those who do not think like us, do not speak like us, are ridiculed by polite society, but who suffer the same economic marginalization. He knew that the disparities of wealth, loss of status and hope for the future, coupled with prolonged social dislocation, generated the poisoned solidarity that give rise to groups such as the Klan or the Proud Boys.
We cannot heal wounds we refuse to acknowledge.
Birmingham, April 12, 1963
"In Birmingham . . . Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and several other ministers were arrested, fire hoses were turned on demonstrators with such force that their only defense was to lie flat on the streets, letting the velocity of the water roll them along like seashells at high tide. Police dogs were used on marchers, including schoolchildren. It was the year four little girls were murdered at their prayers when a bomb exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. President Kennedy expressed Americans’ 'deep sense of outrage and grief,' but the crime was never solved."
From Brother to a Dragonfly by Will D. Campbell