Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.

11 thoughts on “Remembering Will Campbell

  1. I believe Will Campbell once suggested that we force Congress into a layoff, citing that the $6billion would not totally solve the budget problem but maybe the Congress would see the country’s problems differently. Still current today.

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  2. appreciate will campbell and also gordon stewart who counseled me a vietnam vet when i was unable to stay in a loving relationship.today i found gordon while mourning will campbell- hell i’m not mourning will –his example was impossible to follow.fail again,fail harder.they got up to go.they did not move.

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  3. How right you are, Gordon. It is akin to forgiving those who trespass against us (me), but being quite unable to forgive those who trespass against those we love or about whom we care (family, dear friends, the decent 95% or so). I confess I am not really good at the first, but I’m just terrible at the second. I still can’t talk calmly about something that happened over 20 years ago. And I call or write my Congress people, sign all those petitions, and go to demonstrations when I can mostly to try to change the things going wrong, but along the way there is a big dose of anger at the greed (for power if not for money or the most featherbedded jobs in the country) and inhumanity of many Congress people and the upper echelon of major corporations who don’t even see people of “lower” scio-economic classes except as servants. Good servants are neither seen nor heard; they don’t quarrel about their wages or benefits, because if they do, they can be replaced more easily than a cog in a machine. You see, here I go ranting again. I should be praying for them, but mostly I don’t. They hurt so many people. They seem so outrageously greedy. (Judge not that ye be not judged. Oh I am surely facing judgment.)

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    • Once again, Carolyn, we share the same experience. It must be Marple Church, the kindergarten, or the Kidder-Stewart family evening watching the Marciano fight 🙂 Everything you say here sticks too close to my bones. I understand! thank you for sharing. The Progressive has a beautiful piece on Will Campbell that you would love reading. It was posted yesterday – a LONG personal recollection by an author who spent lots of time with Will. I read it last night. I learned to my great surprise that Will Campbell was in the Army on SAIPAN where my father was Chaplain. I wonder….

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  4. “Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” so profound … and needed.

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    • Mona, he was amazing. Going through twitter just now I found the best piece I’ve seen on Will published by The Progressive. If you’re on twitter, I’m sure you can find it. “Appreciating Will Campbell: ‘Preacher to the Damned'” by Fry Gaillard, June 5, 2013.

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    • David, He broke every mold. Going through twitter just now I found the best piece I’ve seen on Will published by

        The Progressive

      . If you’re on twitter, I’m sure you can find it. “Appreciating Will Campbell: ‘Preacher to the Damned’” by Fry Gaillard, June 5, 2013. I think of him in relation to my own sense of righteousness in the gun debate, for instance. Sometimes being right is wrong.

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