Meet Will Campbell, ‘Good Ole Boy’ Preacher, Writer With Crazy Ideas : Activist: Enigmatic Southerner, friend to blacks and rednecks alike, became a civil rights legend. His latest book lambastes social injustices.


It comes as no big jolt to find social activist Will Campbell gripping the handles of an old plow being pulled by a Suzuki four-by-four subbing for a Mississippi mule.

Will Campbell does things his own way. Today he’s invited a few neighbors over for a corn-planting party, much the way Tom Sawyer got his fence painted, and to celebrate the publication of his latest book on social injustice.

Here’s a white Southerner who was a legend of the civil rights movement until he became disillusioned with the growing hostility of some of the movement’s leaders and the “burn, baby, burn” syndrome.

Here’s a whiskey-swilling, tobacco-spitting, guitar-picking Baptist preacher and truck farmer who is a widely respected writer, thinker, humorist and ex-officio chaplain to the Grand Ole Opry crowd.

He doesn’t have a church--a steeple as he puts it--and doesn’t want one.


“I’m a Christian anarchist,” said Campbell, a short man of 67 with a bald and freckled pate and a fringe of unruly long hair. He likes to wear cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat that makes him look like he just fell off an Amish buggy.

“I have a high notion of the church, but I don’t know where it is,” he said, arching a stream of Red Man chewing tobacco into the red dirt of his newly plowed cornfield. “All institutions are inherently evil by definition.”

Here’s a man who grew up poor in the piney woods of Southern Mississippi, was ordained as a Baptist preacher at age 17 and later earned degrees from Wake Forest and Yale Divinity School. He went on to write more than a dozen books, including “Brother to a Dragonfly,” his 1977 award-winning account of his relationship with his older brother, Joe, who died after years of drug abuse.

Campbell was a dragonfly of the civil rights movement in the early ‘60s, always hovering around. A former chaplain at then-lily white Ole Miss, he became a trouble-shooter for the National Council of Churches. He helped integrate schools and lunch counters across the South and then decided that Southern rednecks needed love, too.

Here’s an Army veteran who fought in the Pacific in World War II and then helped run an underground railroad for draft dodgers trying to get to Canada during the Vietnam War.

“I didn’t go looking for that,” said Campbell, watching his neighbors taking turns at the plow and passing around a Mason jar of moonshine that may have been the fruit of last year’s corn crop. “I just kept running into these people who had a problem.”

Campbell was the only white man allowed to sit in on the formation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He escorted black children through jeering mobs during the 1957 school integration crisis in Little Rock, Ark. He ministered to the 1960s Freedom Riders and consoled the mothers of the four black children killed in the Sixteenth Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.

“I never considered myself a civil rights activist,” he said. “It was just that all that nonsense going on made no sense.”

Campbell later horrified many of his liberal friends by befriending a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon on his way to prison and becoming something of a missionary to the nightriders, the same as he was to the Black Muslims.

“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” he replies when asked why he hangs out with redneck racists and black radicals.

Will Davis Campbell, philosopher, court jester, songwriter and itinerant social worker. Fellow Southerner Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for New York Newsday, appropriated the Campbell persona for a character named the Rev. Will B. Dunn in his cartoon strip “Kudzo.”

Admired by many as one of America’s clearest thinkers, Campbell makes light of such a notion. “They say I’ve written more books than I’ve read,” he said.

Campbell’s latest book, just released by Longstreet Press of Marietta, Ga., is titled “Providence.” It’s about the history of one section of land--one square mile--in the Mississippi Delta, from the time the white settlers took it from the Choctaw Indians, through its years as a cotton plantation worked by slaves, to its years as an integrated communal farm.

His other works include the novel “Glad River,” “The Convention: A Parable” and “Forty Acres and a Goat.”

About “Brother to a Dragonfly,” Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet, said it “more than any book I know tells what Southern life is like on the rough side, where the lath and plaster have not been smoothed off, including matters of daily bread, race, and the belief in Jesus Christ.”

The New York Times said it was one of the best books of 1977. Time magazine called it “one of the 10 best books of the decade.”

With the corn planting done, Campbell invites his neighbors to join him at Gass’s Store, a nearby roadside honky-tonk known for its shredded barbecue served on slabs of corn bread with big pitchers of beer. It has a front porch where young couples spoon and take the night air and a stage with a fair-to-middling country band. Campbell and his wife, Brenda, go there most Saturday nights.

Young locals wearing Urban Cowboy hats sit at Formica tables set with bottles of bourbon in brown paper sacks, checking out the girls and sizing up the competition.

“If Will has a church, this is it,” said Brenda, Campbell’s wife of almost half a century and mother of their three grown children. “He married most of the people in here, some of them more than once.”

The reverend is all over the place, chatting, cajoling, joking. Before you know it, he’s up on the stage with the band singing “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.” He’s in fine fettle.

He gets a big hand, lots of yee-haws.

There was a time when Will Davis Campbell was pretty roundly despised by working-class Southerners, even in his hometown of Liberty, Miss.

Like the time in 1956, when he was chaplain at Ole Miss. One day he played a game of Ping-Pong with a visiting black minister in the YMCA, where his office was located. A few days later Brenda went out to get the morning paper and found scattered on the lawn about two dozen Ping-Pong balls, painted half black and half white.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. A short time later Campbell and his staff were having a party for new students in the YMCA building and had set up snacks and a large punch bowl in the back gallery.

“One of the denominational chaplains called me aside and said he thought I should go out and take a look at the punch, that it appeared someone had added some foreign substance,” Campbell recalls. “And they had. Floating in the sweetened fruit beverage, supported from sinking by crushed ice, was about a cup of human feces, sprinkled lightly with what appeared to be powdered sugar.”

It wasn’t long before Campbell had had enough of Ole Miss. He took a job as head of the Southern office of the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations for the National Council of Churches. He bought a 40-acre farm here about 14 miles east of Nashville and moved.

Campbell resigned that job in 1963 and has been supporting himself since mainly by writing, farming and lecturing.

Campbell built a log cabin down behind the main house where he writes his books and sermons, entertains his frequent visitors, or sometimes just sits in a rocking chair on the porch, spitting and whittling on a stick of cedar. He has a gristmill out back where he grinds his own cornmeal.

This writer-preacher has an eclectic circle of close friends, ranging from theologian William Sloan Coffin to cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer to journalist David Halberstam to country singers Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings.

The laptop computer he now uses to write was a gift from Hall. Jennings gave him a photocopier. He keeps those modern machines covered with red bandannas, apparently so as not to detract from the charm of the antique furnishings in the cabin, including a huge stand-up desk, a barber’s chair and an ancient Remington typewriter, now in disuse.

A stained-glass dragonfly hangs in a window.

With the party winding down at Gass’s, Campbell invites a couple of visitors back to his house for a nightcap. After pouring himself a bourbon, he fetches his Gibson guitar, sits down on a long couch and starts strumming and singing. Brenda encourages him to do “Mississippi Magic.”

That’s a song he wrote about a young man riding the rails from Mississippi to Chicago when the madness of black folks and white folks hating each other was getting him down.

The song ends with his funeral:

They’ll stand around my coffin all night.

They’ll say Ole Will was a good ole boy.

He just had some crazy ideas.