Robert B. Simpson: Reverend Will

October 19, 2013 

Brother Will died this past June. Obituaries and reminiscences sprang up in publications all across the country. Strong stuff for a man who fit nobody's mold and was famously out of step with leading figures of his profession. Although he would have said he strove mightily to fit the mold that Jesus patterned, and that being out of step was a mark of success.

Will D. Campbell was born on a cotton farm in Mississippi, was ordained a Baptist preacher at 17, and was an Army medic in the South Pacific at 19. After the war, he attended Wake Forest College (now University), graduating with a degree in English. I graduated eight years later from the same institution and with the same degree, but I heard not one word about Will Campbell. I understood why, when a Wake Forest professor, writing after Campbell's death, said he left neither footprints nor fingerprints there, only a picture in a yearbook. That would change later.

After getting a degree at Yale Divinity School, Campbell was called to pastor a small church in Louisiana. Things didn't go all that well, for the new preacher was inclined to speak against racial discrimination. After two turbulent years, he and the congregation agreed that he should leave. He moved back to Mississippi and became the director of religious life at Ole Miss. His insistence on treating all humans with respect, regardless of race, cost him that job too. The culmination, he claimed, came because he played a game of ping pong with a local black minister, and the dean of the university was incensed. The dean refused to be pacified by Campbell's pointing out in his defense that "we played with separate but equal paddles."

With the training he had, you might have expected Will Campbell to fit nicely into a modern church in an upscale community somewhere, but not so. "I was trained to be a minister," he said, "but I didn't make it." Moving to Nashville to become a field officer for the National Council of Churches, in which capacity he would become deeply involved in the civil rights movement, he became the confidant and adviser to such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin. He was the only white to attend the meeting at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta when Dr. King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped escort black youngsters through hordes of howling whites at Little Rock. Immediately after King's assassination, he was given free access to the death site at the Lorraine Motel, where he grieved with King's associates. And later visited the accused assassin in prison.

This willingness to accept people of all levels made Will Campbell a hero to some and a pariah to others. It didn't seem to matter to him either way. Living in a log cabin with his wife on his farm near Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, he reached out to and received all types, from the down and out to the rich and famous. He was a friend of countless unknown, and simultaneously a friend of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, and President Jimmy Carter. A writer of a score of books, an eloquent speaker, a showman, and a study in contrasts, he loved to strum a guitar with his country music buddies, or sip a bit of moonshine whiskey with a Klansman come to call, help a neighbor, or preach from the pulpits of the largest churches. But the preaching might be blunt. Invited to speak at Riverside Church in New York, he addressed its leader, his Yale classmate the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, directly from the pulpit and advised him to sell the Riverside properties and give the money to the poor of Harlem. He was not invited back.

During the 1998 trial of a Ku Klux Klan member accused of arranging the murder of a civil rights leader, Campbell entered the courtroom and went immediately to the murdered man's family. They welcomed him gratefully. Then he went across the room to the accused, who smiled, an observer said, for the first time that week. When the accused was found guilty, the courtroom erupted in cheers. Will Campbell had tears in his eyes. "If you love one," he was fond of saying, "you gotta love 'em all."

This "bootleg preacher," as he liked to call himself, believed that the Christ he followed in his own way died for the good and the bad, the oppressed and the oppressor, the victim of discrimination and the bigot. "We're all bastards," he often said, "but God loves us anyway."

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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