John Egerton remembers civil rights activist Reverend Will D. Campbell (1924–2013).
Al Clayton, Will Campbell, 1975.
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."
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.
Describing himself as "a Baptist preacher of the South, not a Southern Baptist preacher," Campbell chose to identify more closely with the radical Anabaptist tradition of colonial times than with the contemporary Southern Baptist Convention, which he frequently criticized as too self-serving. He seemed to revel in the adjectives that some of his more rebellious "parishioners" attached to his Baptist identity: "renegade," "guerrilla," "outlaw," and one he used himself in a book title: "bootleg."
In appearance, thought, and behavior, Campbell was an unconventional and sometimes eccentric figure. He commonly wore cowboy boots, Western-style pearl-button shirts, and outlandish hats (in part to cover his premature baldness), and sported a walking cane long before he needed one for support. He once crawled through an airport security checkpoint on his hands and knees after the attendant insisted on x-raying his cane.
Campbell's favorite headpiece was the traditional broad-brimmed black wool hat of the Amish religious sect, which some of his friends thought lent him the aura of an anti-hero. The late cartoonist Doug Marlette appropriated the image for a comic-strip character called "the Rev. Will B. Done," but the humor eventually wore thin, as did the friendship that had developed between the two men. Both Campbell and Marlette denied any connection between the real and imaginary characters under the black hat.
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