Belated Birthday: Will D. Campbell
Mea culpa, Mea culpa! Yesterday, I missed a very significant birthday for the world of maverick Baptist preachers, Southern writers, and personal heroes. On 18 July 1924, in the tiny town of Liberty (Amite County), Mississippi, Will Davis Campbell was born. That means that Brother Will turned 83 years young yesterday. Belated Happy Birthday, Will.
For those of you who are NOT a product of the Dissenting Tradition of maverick white Baptists in the U.S. South, I will give a brief introduction to the life and writings of Will D. Campbell. Born and raised among dirt-poor Mississippi farmers, Campbell came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He was early “marked to preach,” baptized in a creek in Amite County, and ordained by his local congregation before he was old enough to vote. Thanks to some wealthy benefactors, he attended Louisiana College (where he met Brenda Fisher, his future wife), but dropped out to join the U.S. Army when World War II began–despite recruiters’ attempts to give him a ministerial deferment. Against his desire, he was made a chaplain’s assistant and assigned to the South Pacific. His experiences in World War II, atrocities on both sides, plus the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would combine with his study of Jesus’ teachings and his research on early Anabaptists to lead Campbell to embrace Christian pacifism by the early 1950s. His WWII experiences (and Howard Fast’s historical novel, Freedom Road, recommended by his elder brother, which Campbell read in the service) also led Campbell to reject racism and white supremacy and to realize that poor whites and African-Americans had too often been pitted against each other by rich white (and, often, Northern) elites for the benefit of those elites.
Returning to civilian life, Campbell married Brenda Fisher and finished his A.B. at Wake Forest College (now University) in order to study with more progressive Baptist scholars. He then took additional study in philosophy and sociology at Tulane University, an historic Black college, before “going North” for his B.D. at Yale University Divinity School. Campbell was part of a generation of white Southern ministerial students who, after education in the North, returned to the South deliberately to try to prepare segregated churches for the social revolution they knew was coming.
Campbell quickly ran afoul of segregated institutions, managing to pastor a church in Louisiana only for two years (1952-1954) and to be chaplain at the University of Mississippi (“Ol’ Miss”) only until he tried to push it toward desegregation (before James Meredith broke the color line with the assistance of federal troops to quell rioting white students and faculty!). Campbell spent several years as working for the National Council of Churches as a reporter and liaison to the Civil Rights movement, a role in which he was one of the few white people (and, often, the only white Southerner) at the founding meetings of such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Campbell quit this role when he realized that true racial reconciliation was going to take deep changes on the part of white Southerners that would not come from legislation–and he began working with the most racist of white Southerners, including members of the KKK. (Despite calls from several “Black Power” voices for liberal whites to “go back home and work to change your own people,” Campbell was predictably called a racist when he proceeded to do just that!)
He is the author of numerous books, including fiction, autobiographical narratives, and nonfiction accounts of untold aspects of Southern history. Some of his works have won awards. Several academic dissertations have been written about his work, along with the bio-pic, God’s Will, and the excellent secondary study by Merrill M. Hawkins, Jr., Will Campbell, Radical Prophet of the South (Mercer University Press, 1997). Along with James M. Dunn (champion of religious liberty and church-state separation), Campbell is the inspiration (and physical model) of the late Doug Marlette’s comic strip preacher, Rev. Will B. Dunn.
I first heard of Campbell in college in a class on “Religion and Literature,” in which we were assigned his amazing work, Brother to a Dragonfly, his first and still most famous book. I finally met him, as with so many icons I have met, at a summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Campbell returned the honorarium for his speaking with the note, “This is a group of Baptist peacemakers. There are too damn few of us to go around paying each other!” Happy Birthday, Brother Will. There are still too damn few of us radical, anarchist, (Ana)Baptist peacemakers with roots in Dixie, but, thanks partly to you, there are a few more these days than previously. Many happy returns.
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