During the past few months, political figures like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been saying divisive language that has been scapegoating groups like immigrants, Muslims, LGBT individuals, and African Americans. They are exploiting the fears of many of the most partisan voters in the Republican primaries to gain votes. In the mid 20th century, there was an itinerant white southern Baptist preacher named Will D. Campbell who tried instead to reconcile the white and black communities and to reach out to the poor, the dispossessed, and the marginalized in southern society.
Will Campbell was one of three men who shepherded the Little Rock Nine students through an angry white mob before the National Guard was federalized. He was the only white man at the founding of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and he was a friend and confidant of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, John Lewis and others. Campbell worked as a strategist and negotiator at every major civil rights campaign of the movement. In 1963, when four young black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Rev. Campbell came to comfort their families.
While Campbell worked in the civil rights movement, he also reached out to the segregationist whites. He visited James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, in prison, and he also ministered to a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon in jail.
Rev. Campbell protested American involvement in the Vietnam War, helped draft resisters find sanctuaries in Canada, spoke against capital punishment and abortion. He supported the rights of women, African Americans and the LGBT community. He approved of affirmative action.
Robert McFadden wrote in a New York TImes obituary of Campbell:
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.
…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.
John Egerton wrote in Southern Spaces:
Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, Campbell often made common cause with activist leaders of religious and social efforts to fulfill the nation’s unmet promises of liberty, equality, and justice for all. Finding his voice as a plain-spoken advocate of racial integration in the mid-1950s, he soon allied himself with the Nashville-based nonviolence initiative of the Reverends James M. Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith, whose leadership inspired the lunch-counter sit-ins and commercial-bus freedom rides of 1960–1961.
In later years, Campbell spoke eloquently against the Vietnam War, capital punishment, unregulated guns, overbearing government power, abortion on demand, and the invasion of Iraq. He also joined the fight to secure equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, the poor, the homeless, and all who suffered discrimination in a society dominated by affluent white males.
Timothy Green wrote in First Things First:
Will was fond of saying that if you are going to love one then you have to love everyone. And this meant rednecks as well as radicals. Will infuriated many of his former allies in the civil rights struggle when he befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan and even visited James Earl Ray in prison. Campbell wrote: “I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his hostility, his frustration, his need for someone upon whom to lay blame and to punish. With the same love that we are commanded to shower upon the innocent victim, the church must love the racist.”
…As the holy wars heated up in the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980s and 1990s, Campbell often expressed disdain for the so-called fundamentalist leaders of the SBC. Among Baptist progressives, he became something of a folk hero. However, he did not hesitate to warn moderates against constructing another “steeple” to replace the one they had left. All institutions, including religious ones, are inherently evil, he said. “If Jesus Christ had been a moderate, he would never have been crucified.” Will Campbell, the iconoclast, was also on full display when he preached at Riverside Church. He publicly addressed his host and former Yale classmate William Sloan Coffin and encouraged him to auction off all of Riverside’s property and give the proceeds to the Harlem poor. He told me he did not expect to be invited back and I don’t think he ever was.
Will Campbell was sometimes called an anarchist and a pacifist though he eschewed both terms. He was an intellectual disciple of Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller and always thought it was dangerous to mingle Mr. Jesus and Mr. Caesar. Will loved the Anabaptists and thought of them as his spiritual forbears. There is something compelling about the Anabaptist vision and, as a former student of the great George Huntston Williams, I myself have felt its allure. But the older I have grown, the more I have come to appreciate the counter witness of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. Jean Bethke Elshtain’s summary of Augustine’s counsel is a good reminder for believers who live in a world of contested loyalties. “Resisting altogether any notion of earthly perfection, Augustine offers instead a complex moral map that creates space for loyalty and love and care, as well as for a chastened form of civic virtue.”
Here is a vimeo documentary on Reverand Will D. Campbell titled “God’s Will”
A minidocumentary on Will D. Campbell
Here is a video of a tribute to Reverand Will D. Campbell after he died in 2013