It is hard to say whether Will D. Campbell is more well-known as a Baptist preacher or as a writer, or whether it would be impossible to separate those two aspects of this unorthodox Southerner. Born in 1924, the son of Mississippi cotton farmers, Campbell became a Baptist preacher when he was seventeen years old. He first attended the small Louisiana College, then served in World War II; after the war, he went to Wake Forest, Tulane, and Yale Divinity.
As a preacher, it was Campbell’s nontraditional, progressive views on racial justice that made him stand out on his native Mississippi. In the mid-1950s, while Campbell was serving in a pastoral capacity at Ole Miss, his supportive stance toward the burgeoning Civil Rights movement caused him to have to leave that stalwart institution. He next worked with the National Council of Churches offering pastoral support in racially tense situations all over the South, and he continued that kind of work for various organizations during the 1960s and 1970s.
In addition to his work with the church, Campbell was also a prolific writer. Among his seventeen books, his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly was a finalist for the National Book Award. (Though I’ve read that one and his novel The Glad River, I’m partial to two nonfiction books that contain his wonderful examples of his almost-whimsical, folksy wisdom: 1986’s Forty Acres and a Goat and 1999’s Soul Among Lions.)
About Campbell, The New York Times explained him this way:
A knot of contradictions himself, he was a civil rights advocate who drank whiskey with Klansmen, a writer who layered fact and fiction, and a preacher without a church who presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals and graveyards for a flock of like-minded rebels that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel.
(In addition to his books and articles about him, which offer plenty to muse upon, Campbell’s papers are housed at the University of Southern Mississippi.)
Will D. Campbell may be one of the lesser-known figures of the Civil Rights movement, but his steady courage, kind heart, and unorthodox sensibility allowed him to reach people who may have been averse to traditional activist methods. Will D. Campbell died in 2013 at the age of 88.