Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Will D. Campbell, 1923 - 2013

Randall Stephens

I've just heard the sad news that Will D. Campbell--activist, minister, and author--has passed away.  Many who teach southern history or American religious history will be familiar with Campbell's humorous, insightful, page-turners like Brother to a Dragonfly (1977) and Forty Acres and a Goat (1986).  I've used the latter when I've taught the modern South.

Today, the New York Times eulogizes him:

The Rev. Will D. Campbell, a renegade preacher and author who joined the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, quit organized religion and fought injustice with nonviolent protests and a storyteller’s arsenal of autobiographical tales and fictional histories, died on Monday night in Nashville. He was 88. . . .

Followers and friends called Mr. Campbell hilarious, profound, inspiring and apocalyptic, a bourbon-drinking, guitar-picking, down-home country boy who made moonshine and stomped around his Tennessee cabin in cowboy boots and denim uttering streams of sacred and profane commentary that found their way into books, articles, lectures and sermons. Read on>>>

To mark the passing of this remarkable individual, I include an excerpt here from historian and friend Ben Houston's interview with Campbell.  The interview appeared in 2007 in the Journal of Southern Religion, which I was then editing with Bland Whitley:

An Interview with Will D. Campbell

Mississippi-native preacher and civil rights activist Will D. Campbell is a formidable figure. For over fifty years the self-described "preacher without a pulpit" has been stirring the conscience of the South on issues related to social justice, poverty, and race. After receiving an A.B. from Wake Forest College, Campbell earned a B.D. from Yale, where he looked to socially progressive faculty members like Liston Pope and H. Richard Niebuhr for guidance. He served as Director of Religious Life at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956 until he was forced out of that office because of his civil rights work. After this he moved to Nashville where he worked behind the scenes in the sit-in movement. Campbell is a popular speaker and the author of numerous books and articles.  His Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Seabury Press, 1977) was nominated for the National Book Award and garnered the Lillian Smith Prize. . . .

Benjamin Houston: It is July 1, 2003. I am in the cabin of Will Campbell near Mount Juliet, Tennessee. Reverend Campbell, I know you were born in Mississippi. What was the date?

Will Campbell: July 18, 1924.

Houston: How would you describe 1950's Nashville to me, an outsider both to Nashville and the 1950s?

Campbell: Nashville was deceiving itself. It thought that it was ahead, and it was, ahead of, say, Jackson, Mississippi, or Birmingham or Montgomery and so on, in terms of some leadership that did not want to be embarrassed by being haters and all that. But underneath that, you had some old aristocracy. The old Fugitive movement [a group of poets at Vanderbilt University], for example, was here. That was a racist movement. Actually, Donald Davidson [Vanderbilt professor of English; Fugitive poet, and Southern Agrarian], who was a fine writer, reporter, and others, I thought they had some good ideas when they talked about, you know, throw the radio out the window and take the banjo and the fiddle down off the wall. I thought that was cool. I still do. But, when it happened, why could not Donald Davidson, and I am using him as a prototype, or even others have said to Uncle Dave Macon and the Grand Ole Opry early-timers, say, hey, man, it would be cool, we will go down to the Ryman Auditorium [site of Grand Ole Opry], and you pick your banjo and you sing me mountain songs, and then I will read poetry. And let there be this fusion of folk and university culture. Instead of that, they moved to Belle Meade [a wealthy and exclusive suburb of Nashville] and didn't read anything but one another's [work].  They were embarrassed by the mountain, the rural people, the country music.

Houston: You have acknowledged that there is a distinction between a place like Nashville and Mississippi, and you would credit that with the leadership in the first place and a certain self-image in Nashville?

Campbell: Partly self-image, plus it wasn't as rural. Of course, I grew up in it, so what I say has to be kind of sifted through that sieve of small-farm yeomen culture. We were not on plantations. We did not work with other people, blacks and others. We did the work ourselves. . . . So, it was definitely a different culture from what I had grown up in. . . .

Read more here

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