The Rev. Will D. Campbell was a poor white boy from Mississippi who preached his first sermon from a pulpit stocked with a Bible from the Ku Klux Klan. But this son of the segregated South — a self-avowed “good ol’ boy with crazy ideas” — did not follow the conventional career path for a Southern Baptist minister in the 1950s.
He became the only white man admitted to the founding meeting of the seminal Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. That same year, when nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., he was one of three white ministers who guided them past a fierce white mob. Later, when civil rights workers targeted Nashville lunch counters, he rounded up sympathetic whites to nudge the business owners toward integration.
Often his actions brought threats, such as the time when, as chaplain at the University of Mississippi, he openly played pingpong with a black person. The next thing he knew, someone had slipped excrement into his punch bowl.
But Campbell couldn’t hate the bigots. Practicing what he called a “ministry of reconciliation,” he left organized religion to be a free agent for God, marrying, burying and counseling society’s outcasts — especially poor whites and racists — from his log house in the boondocks of Tennessee.
Campbell, 88, who often said, “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” died Monday in Nashville of complications from a 2011 stroke, said his son, Webb Campbell.
Although little known outside the South, the renegade preacher was “essential to the struggle” for racial equality, said the Rev. James Lawson, the civil rights leader and longtime pastor at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.
“He often got taunted because he was a pastor to the Ku Klux Klan,” Lawson, who organized the Nashville protests, recalled in an interview last week. “He did a number of their weddings and baptisms. Then he turned around and did one for our finest friends and colleagues. So I think that was his great strength. He was on the human side, no matter what human. He loved all humans in the great spectrum of life.”
He also drank whiskey, cussed freely “and had an ego. There was a whole lot about him that did not fit the description of a saint,” said Nashville writer John Egerton, a friend of 50 years. “But he had a keen sense of how unique it was to come out of darkest Mississippi into the larger world and realize that the rest of the world was as screwed up as Mississippi. It made it possible for him to do some really wonderful things.”
The author of more than a dozen books, Campbell was best known for “Brother to a Dragonfly” (1977), a National Book Award finalist that was as much a tale about his beloved, troubled brother Joe as it was a meditation on the afflictions of the postwar South.
Along the way, Campbell buried country singer Roger Miller, officiated at Trisha Yearwood’s wedding and went on the road with Waylon Jennings as his cook. He wore a tall, black Amish hat for years, as did the “Kudzu” comic strip character he inspired, the Rev. Will B. Dunn.
Born in Liberty, Miss., on July 18, 1924, Campbell was the third of four children of poor cotton farmers. At the age of 7, he joined his family’s Baptist church and began delivering prayers at local revival meetings. He was ordained in 1941 before he left for Louisiana College, where he met his future wife, Brenda Fisher.
Besides his son and his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Penny and Bonnie, and four grandchildren.
When World War II broke out, Campbell gave up his ministerial deferment and joined the Army, serving as an orderly in a military hospital. Toward the end of the war, he picked up a copy of “Freedom Road,” a 1944 novel by Howard Fast set in the Reconstruction era. Its radical theme, revolving around a political alliance between former slaves and poor whites, brought “a conversion experience comparable to none I had ever had,” Campbell later wrote. He resolved to make social activism the focus of his ministry.
After the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest College in 1948, a master’s in English literature from Tulane University in 1949 and a bachelor’s of divinity from Yale University in 1952. Then he was hired as pastor of a small Louisiana church, where, as he described in “God’s Will,” a 2000 PBS documentary about him, he “preached about McCarthy one Sunday, the Negroes the next.” He lasted two years in the post.
His next job was director of religious life at Ole Miss, but he found academia as intolerant as organized religion. Fired after the pingpong incident, he moved to Nashville in 1956, joining the National Council of Churches as a troubleshooter in race relations.
He promptly joined the Nashville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, put his money in a black-run bank, joined a black church and hired a black secretary. “He recognized the segregation, so he desegregated his own life,” Lawson said.
In 1963, disillusioned about the ability of any institution to effect change, Campbell left the National Council of Churches and formed the Committee of Southern Churchmen, a loose alliance of like-minded mavericks who saw the issue of oppression as more complicated than white hatred of blacks.
Taking to heart the admonition of militant Stokely Carmichael that whites should get out of the civil rights movement and tend to their own kind, he left the committee in the early 1960s for a farm in Mount Juliet, Tenn., outside of Nashville. With the local tavern as his church, the bootleg preacher ministered to all comers, believing that racists were “the most unlovely and the most in need of love.”
The degree to which he acted on his beliefs was, his friends said, the measure of his character. His flock included a former imperial wizard of the Klan who had murdered a white grocer friendly to blacks. When a reporter asked Campbell why he attended the man’s retrial in 1998, he exploded: “Because I’m a Christian, G--dammit!”
“If you’re gonna love one,” he said in calmer moments, “you’ve got to love ‘em all.”