The first time I heard Will D. Campbell’s name was in the context of a conversation with an elderly neighbor whose voice churned confetti and fireworks as she described her favorite “bootleg preacher”. I was intrigued- but all that breastmilk-induced oxytocin erased the name from my memory until I ran across it again while reading a book of conversations with Walker Percy. And then again when researching the life of Clarence Jordan.
Like Clarence Jordan, Will knew what he was up against in racism- a form of excusable disgust and hatred which preachers sought to justify using scriptures and traditions. For Will, it would not be enough to decry the hatred for other races. Instead, he would have to learn to love even the most unlovable human beings.
Given his extensive career in the Christian church, Will often surprised people by confessing that his faith came to him much later than his memorization of scriptures. Though a preacher, Will claims he actually became a Christian when his friend, Jonathan Daniel, was murdered in 1966. Daniel had come from his Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to register blacks to vote in the notorious Lowndes County. After walking into into a country store with a white priest and two black friends, Daniel emerged holding a Moon Pie and a soda pop. A sheriff’s deputy named Thomas Coleman found this Moon Pie to resemble a threat and decided to resolve the matter with the help of his shotgun. Daniel gave his life for the civil rights movement.
When Campbell heard about Daniel’s death, he was visiting his friend PD. East, the colorful and defiant editor of the Petal, Mississippi, newspaper called The Petal Paper.
This was the turning point in Campbell’s life. He describes it in his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly.
I never got over Campbell’s Brother To A Dragonfly, which I read en route through the entire opus of Walker Percy. Unlike Percy, Campbell didn’t need to play dress-up in order to reveal the nakedness of modern man. Like Wendell Berry, Campbell’s sense of “place” oriented his characters in a way that is familiar to anyone who was born in Romania and raised in Alabama, between one place and out the other.
Passages like this one found a nook, a place to sit and simmer, in my mind:
As a piece of southern history, Will’s book is unsurpassed. It breaks the heart while mending it. Though Will passed away several years ago, his influence continues to ripple outwards. Here are a few selections from those who knew him…
“Rev. Will D. Campbell, Maverick Minister in Civil Rights Era, Dies at 88” (New York Times)
“Bubba to a gadfly- remembering Will D. Campbell” (Ken Carder)
“Reverend Will D. Campbell, southern racial reconciler” (Southern Spaces)
“The first church of rednecks, white socks, and blue ribbon beer” (Rolling Stone)
“The tragedy of the redneck” (Joel Rieves)
“Apostle to the rednecks” (Phillip Yancey)
Brother to a dragonfly (The Contrary Goddess)
“Brother to a dragonfly” (Paul Greenberg)