Story and photos by John Pierce
EDITOR’S NOTE: Will Campbell died June 3 at age 88. In tribute, we are reprinting this feature story that appeared in the January 2005 issue of Baptists Today.
MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. — Will Davis Campbell grew up during the Depression years in Amite County, Miss. He has been called a bootleg preacher, an agitator, a liberal and several things not fit to print. He generally describes himself as one who “writes rare books for a living.”
Campbell, who turned 80 last July (2004), does not seem to have lost sleep over what others think or say about him. He has never offered himself as a model for ecclesiastical excellence.
Yet Campbell’s unique ministry has touched the famous and the forgotten. His words — written, spoken or sung — knock the varnish off pretense and cause a reexamination of faith commitments claimed.
Campbell is best known for Brother to a Dragonfly (1977, Continuum Press), a moving account of his deep involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and of his close and painful relationship with his beloved brother Joe. An anniversary edition with a foreword by President Jimmy Carter was released in 2000.
Will’s late father, a longtime Baptist deacon, excused his son’s stark language in the book that some found offensive, saying: “My boy was writing about hornets’ nests.”
Although that book won the Lillian Smith Prize, Campbell considers his 1982 novel, The Glad River (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), to be his best writing. The novella, Cecilia’s Sin (1983, Mercer University Press), was spun off of that book. These two works of fiction reveal Campbell’s interest in Anabaptist history.
Other titles include Forty Acres and a Goat (1986, Peachtree Publishers), The Convention: A Parable (1988, Peachtree Publishers), Providence (1992, Longstreet Press) and The Stem of Jesse: The Costs of Community at a 1960s Southern School (1995, Mercer University Press).
Campbell’s most recent release is Robert G. Clark’s Journey to the House: A Black Politician’s Story (2003, University Press of Mississippi).
Baptists Today editor John Pierce spent a September (2004) morning with Brother Will at his writing cabin on the spread of land near Nashville that he and his wife Brenda have shared for more than four decades.
The conversation was rambling, often off subject and simply delightful. The following exchange is pulled from that interview.
BT: How did you first meet Waylon Jennings?
WC: Right here in this cabin. A fellow named Johnny Darrow, who never had but one big song and I forgot what it was, wanted me to do his wedding. Waylon was his best man.
I got to the part about “Who brings this woman to be married to this man?” and nobody said anything. The girl’s daddy was here, but he was nervous.
So Waylon said, “I do.”
We just kind of hit it off. I married everybody in his band at least once and all of their kids. I baptized [his son] little Shooter when he was about six months old.
I asked: “What are we doing here? I’m a deep-water Baptist, and we baptize by dunking adults — or we call them adults, though they may not be any more aware than this baby.”
Now [Waylon’s wife] Jessi [Colter] was a United Pentecostal; her mama was a big-time Pentecostal preacher, and Waylon was an a capella Campbellite from Littlefield, Texas.
I asked Waylon, “How are we doing this?”
About that time, Muhammad Ali came by. He was a friend of Waylon’s.
I said, “I want to do it the way he wants it done.” He’s even more formidable in person.
He said, “I’m a Muslim; I don’t want it done at all.” I said, “Then I’m not going to do it if he doesn’t want it done.”
Waylon said, “Oh, we can handle him.”
So that’s how I met Waylon the first time. He liked to come out here and sit in this cabin.
He would just get a chair and sit over there and wouldn’t say anything for maybe 45 minutes to an hour. He said he got renewed here.
One day he came in here and sat, and it wasn’t the same. Finally, Jessi said, “Waylon, what’s the matter with you?”
He said, “I don’t know but something ain’t right.”
After awhile, he said, “I know what it is. Remember two Christmases ago when [Johnny] Cash took us over to the Holy Land and we riding out in the desert, and we saw a big light way out in the distance?”
Jessi, who is very, very religious, kept saying, “Waylon, that’s the Star in the East.” And Waylon would say, “Yeah. Sure.”
But he said he started getting a little spooked because the closer they got, the bigger the light was.
“Finally,” he said, “we got up there and it was Bedouin, a shepherd, in a tent watching CNN News on a satellite television.”
Then he said to me: “It’s your computer; it doesn’t belong in this cabin. You ought to get it out of here, Will.”
BT: No wonder you stay in trouble with some Baptists.
WC: Yeah, there’s a fellow up at the seminary who attacks things I’ve written about baptism. I made the big mistake of baptizing my 6-year-old grandson by sprinkling — which was no offense to me, and it didn’t bother the kid.
I knew this was not the “orthodox” way to do it, but my daughter was not involved in any church — whatever church is. She asked me at Christmas if I would christen — I believe that is the word she used — Harlan who was about 6.
I said, “Sure.”
My daddy was visiting us, and he had been a Baptist for 60 years by then. I was a little sensitive about that. But he said, “Baptize your grandson; don’t be silly.”
When I got through, little Harlan was sopping his eggs with his biscuit and said: “Papa, what did you put on my head?”
I said water. He asked why. So we talked about it a little.
I said: “You know that big lump you get in your throat when you and your mama fight and fuss? Well, you don’t have to have that. That’s called guilt.”
We talked about being free from guilt. When we got through, he jumped down and looked up. In the throws of a deep-down belly laugh, he said: “Well, Papa, thank you then.”
I felt that was the most appropriate response to any sacrament I’d ever heard. Of course, Baptists don’t have sacraments. Well, I do. (A Southern Baptist leader) who read about that referred to me as the “poet laureate of the Baptist left” and then talked about my daddy. I wrote him a long letter but threw it away.
They call themselves conservatives, but they are not conservatives… I’m conservative. I’m an old-fashioned Baptist because I go back to the Anabaptists.
Even the more enlightened say we’re not related to those folks. Well, we are related to those folks. [William] Estep of the Fort Worth seminary — which is not known as a hotbed of radicalism — proved conclusively in his writings that we are related to the Anabaptists.
[Judge Paul] Pressler wouldn’t even have been permitted to join the group, by virtue of being a civil magistrate.
And they were hunted by armed horsemen like rabbits and drowned in the Amstel River because they wouldn’t go to war — any war, civil war or religious war. And they wouldn’t run for public office.
I’m more like the Anabaptists than any faction of the current Baptist movements. Now, I realize there is not a direct connection between us back to Amsterdam and the people being drowned in the Amstel River.
It is so odd. More of them were women preachers than men, but [Southern Baptists] say man was first in creation and woman was first in sin. The “edenic fall,” they call it.
OK, I’ll go with that logic. Therefore, women ought to be the first to be ordained if they were the first to sin.
BT: How did you get so connected to the country music community?
WC: Well, living in the Nashville area, you have to know two chords on a guitar to get a driver’s license. It wasn’t that I went out looking for them.
I was telling you about Waylon. Then Tom T. Hall sent word that he had somehow read my stuff. Tom is maybe the best songwriter to ever come through Nashville.
BT: He wrote “Harper Valley PTA,” I believe.
WC: Yeah, he wrote “Harper Valley PTA” and made enough money to buy a Cadillac. Then he wrote “Little Bitty” and made enough to buy a house.
I got to know him, and then I worked for Waylon one summer. And Bobby Bare was out here last week just wanting to talk.
Some of them think I know something they don’t know. If they only knew how little I know.
BT: What did you do while working for Waylon?
WC: It had been a long time between book royalties. Brenda indicated one of us had to get out and get a real job.
I could tell from her tone of voice that she had a preference in the matter. So I went to Waylon and said I needed a job.
He said: “You got it, Hoss. Be on the bus. We’ll be leaving at one o’clock Thursday morning from my house.”
After a couple of days I still didn’t know what my job was. I said, “I thought you gave me a job.”
Waylon said, “I did.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe it’s none of my business, but what is it?”
Jessi said: “If Waylon gives you a job, just look around and see what’s not being done that you think should be done. That’s your job.”
I noticed I was the one that opened and closed the microwave the most, so I said: “I’ll be the cook.” So that’s what I was.
His band used to call me “Hop Sing.” But I didn’t do much cooking. I would decide whether we could stop at Hardee’s or McDonald’s.
Once Jessi wanted me to talk to Waylon [about his spiritual life]. But I always felt like an ecclesiastical peeping tom talking to someone about the state of their soul.
So one night about two o’clock in the morning — that’s when Waylon still had his drug problem that he overcame without going to a drug center — I said, “Waylon, what do you believe?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Yeah? What is that supposed to mean?”
He said, “Uh-huh.”
And that was the end of witnessing to ol’ Waylon.
But he remembered that and years later wrote a song, “I Do Believe.” It begins with, “In my own way I’m a believer.”
He told people that story many times. It was an affirmation of faith.
BT: In a sense, you have been a chaplain to these people.
WC: I think that is a fair statement, but it’s not on my bio sheet. They have come to me. A lot of them call about doing weddings. And, of course, when Waylon died I did his funeral out in Arizona and his memorial service here [in Nashville]. It’s just one of those things that just happened.
Also, I’m sometimes introduced as “the chaplain to the Klan.” I wasn’t the chaplain to the Klan. I just got to know a number of people.
The Klan is probably not as racist as, say, the government is. It is not a bunch of pitiful, largely uneducated, largely poor people marching around burning a cross who keeps people in poverty and ignorance. It’s the “good people” — the social institutions of government.
Somebody would hear that I did a wedding or a funeral of a Klan family in North Carolina, or that I visited the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in prison. But at the same time I was there, I visited Dan Meredith who was there for protesting the Vietnam War.
Some of my friends like to say, “Here comes ol’ If-you-love-one-you-got-to-love-them-all Campbell.” But that’s about what it boils down to.
Some say [of the Klan]: “I wouldn’t speak to those people.” But you speak to your next-door neighbor and your husband. Some their views can be more imprisoning than these silly rituals.
When you say “the Klan,” you haven’t said anything. There is more brokenness there and more different Klan units. They are worse than the Baptist movement. They get into a fight and just form another branch.
BT: Is it true that you were fired as chaplain at the University of Mississippi in 1956 for playing Ping-Pong with a black man?
WC: This black minister was a young fellow who was new in town. I’d gone by his office and brought him over to the YMCA building where my office was. We were up to something.
But as we were coming out there was a Ping-Pong table in the lobby. He said he had played Ping-Pong all through college and seminary, so we played a couple of games.
I saw this fellow who was on the staff watching from a distance. Then we finished and went on out to my car.
But this thing wound up in the Sovereignty Commission papers in Mississippi. The Sovereignty Commission was a legislative organ to investigate and report on any suspicious activities that would bring down the racial barriers.
Now I have never gotten my Sovereignty Commission report, like I’ve never gotten my FBI report. I have no idea what’s in it, but I know there’s a lot of stuff in it. But I don’t care.
A friend of mine got the report and one of the articles said that on such-and-such date in 1955, “Will Campbell was seen playing Ping-Pong with a well-dressed, nice-looking Negro man. After the game, Campbell took the Negro in his car and drove him leisurely around the campus.”
The reason for the wording of “well-dressed, nice-looking man” was to say he was not a janitor. He didn’t belong on campus.
As far as “driving leisurely around campus,” there was a speed break every 15 feet. Of course I was going to drive leisurely.
But that was over a Ping-Pong game. Now I watch a basketball game, for example, and I think there is one white starter, maybe, and the coach is black. Football is the same way.
BT: Growing up in Mississippi at the time you did, who were the influences that shaped your thinking about race?
WC: It’s difficult to pin down, but I can point to some “for instances.” But why those things would stick with me, I don’t know.
When I was about 5 or maybe 6 years old, all of us Campbell boys lived in a little cluster. That was back when the old man would get older and divide the land.
We young boys would go to Grandpa Bunt’s on Sunday afternoons and play barefooted. We’d play sticker races to see how far you could run across the land with those little stickers before you stopped and pulled them out.
We were taunting an old black man walking down this old country road: “Hey nigger; hey nigger.”
Grandpa Bunt chewed Prince Albert tobacco, the only person I’ve ever known to chew it. I tried it, but couldn’t wad it. He was so neat people didn’t know he chewed it.
He called everybody “Hun” — men, women, boys and girls. He didn’t have all these Freudian hang-ups we have now.
He called us all around him and said, “Now, huns, there ain’t no niggers.”
We said, “Yes, Grandpa; John Walker is a nigger.”
“There’s so such thing,” he said. “He is a colored man,” that being the accepted term then.
And I never forgot that. It obviously made an impression on me.
I went off to Louisiana College, which was all white, of course. But then I went into the Army and immediately paired off with a couple of black guys.
I don’t know why, but something just didn’t seem right about the whole segregated system. In the Army I was associated with people from all over the country.
I read a lot of stuff, like Frederick Douglass’ books. And my brother sent me the book Freedom Road by Howard Fast. That made an impression on me.
Why those things made an impression on me I don’t know. Why Grandpa Bunt’s little lecture stuck with me and not with my brothers and cousins, I don’t know.
I can’t explain it. I was not any smarter than them and we went to the same school, same church, same Sunday school. But I never forgot that little lesson from Grandpa Bunt and other experiences.
BT: Was there a time when it dawned on you that this was your life’s calling?
WC: It was in the Army. Then I went back to college, transferring to Wake Forest — thinking wrongly that it was a bit more open. Then I went to Yale Divinity School because Liston Pope was there teaching social ethics.
BT: How did you end up at the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta?
WC: That’s a story that has been exaggerated. It was just a meeting of black clergy from the South to talk about the Montgomery bus strike.
I was working for the National Council of Churches then. My boss in New York was black, but wouldn’t come to the South. He asked me to go and represent the National Council of Churches.
I got there and Martin (Luther King Jr.) and Ralph (David Abernathy) had both gone back to Montgomery because one of their houses had been firebombed or something.
When I got to [Ebenezer Baptist Church] where the meeting was being held, the person in charge told me, “Mr. Campbell, we don’t want to offend you, but this is a meeting for colored preachers only.
Bayard Rustin was there — one of the unsung heroes of the movement. He did more than anyone to influence Martin toward nonviolence.
Bayard had heard the conversation and said, “Look, before this thing is over we are going to need help from any source. I know Mr. Campbell, and he is on our side.”
I’d met him in Montgomery during the bus boycott. So they said, “You come on in.”
It is sometimes reported that Will Campbell was the only white person present — and it’s true. But it’s not like Martin Luther King Jr. called his old friend Will Campbell — though he was a friend by then — and said, “I want you to represent the white race at the meeting.”
BT: Are you doing some writing now?
WC: Well, yes and no. My last book was the one about Robert Clark (Journey to the House), the first black person to be elected to statewide office [in Mississippi] since Reconstruction.
He was elected from Holmes County, one of the toughest counties in the state. He was treated most shabbily, as you would expect in the ’60s in Mississippi.
They challenged his credentials. But he eventually became speaker pro tem of the house, a very powerful position. He is still a powerful figure in the state.
In fact, I’ll be with him in a couple of weeks. The University of Mississippi, where I was run off from in 1956, is going to make me honorary chaplain of the university for life.
I said, “I don’t think I want to do this.” But they said, “You talk about reconciliation and forgiveness. We thought you were serious.”
So I’m going to go.
BT: You have always said that true soul freedom cannot be found in any institution. Is it possible to institutionalize Christianity and be faithful?
WC: I doubt it. It depends on the level of institution.
You take something like Koinonia that Clarence [Jordan] and his little group did. I think they were faithful to the point of rather harsh persecution.
But they did not succeed really. Koinonia Farm failed so far as changing the culture; they never did do it. And there’s never been a tougher human being born than Clarence Jordan. He was totally without fear.
I met him right after I got out of the Army. I was at Wake Forest, and he was just an angel from heaven. I went to his group during Religious Focus Week and he was talking about Koinonia. I really took to him.
But the nature of institutions will simply not allow for the kind of radical faithfulness that the New Testament really does mandate.
BT: Why did you paste your ordination certificate over your degree from Yale Divinity School?
WC: It was a symbol, I think. And there was a period when I was more critical of Yale and higher education in general than I am now. Yale was a good experience for me.
But it was a matter of priorities. I think it was appropriate that I do that.
There was a time when they were going to take away my ordination, but they didn’t know how to do it. One of the beauties of the Baptist movement is they didn’t know how to do it.
The other reason was there were two guys there [in Mississippi] who had been in the Navy that sent word: “You try to take Will Davis’ ordination away from him and…”
That ordination certificate — pasted on top of my Yale degree — was signed by a country preacher, my daddy, my uncle and my cousin. They were the ordaining council. They misspelled even the name of the church. But that’s my orders.
BT: Are there things over the years that you’ve changed your mind about?
WC: I’m sure there are. Obviously, the nature of institutions is one. When I decided to “enter the ministry,” I must have assumed something.
I wasn’t as developed in my social views of race and labor and war and so on. I volunteered for the war, though I was already ordained. I didn’t have to go. So I’m sure that has changed somewhat.
When I got overseas they were assigning us to a division that lost 50 men yesterday. You were just cannon fodder.
Some of those soldiers had been together 10 years or longer. I was in line to be assigned.
When they got to me, he said: “Campbell, you from Mississippi?” I said, “Yes.”
He said, “You know anybody from Louisiana?”
“From Shadow, Louisiana?”
“Yes, my Uncle Clifton.”
“Your Uncle Clifton is my best friend. We were in the LIONS Club together, went hunting and fishing together and taught school together,” he said. “You’re going to the 109th hospital station.”
I almost cried. Here were my buddies that had trained together.
I said: “No, I want to go into combat with my buddies.”
He said: “Well, you’re not going. And not only that, I can get you out of this Army and have you on the next ship to the States because you are an ordained Baptist minister.”
So I went to the hospital. I didn’t know how to take a temperature, and they put me in the operating room.
The first day a little Chinese sergeant in charge of the operating room told me to “scrub up.” I thought that meant to mop the floor. But he kindly taught me names of the instruments.
That was one of those things that just happened. I could claim that was the hand of the Lord, but what about all those others that went to the front lines and didn’t come back?
BT: You told the Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society several years ago that you never heard a more profound lecture on social ethics than the prayer your father gave at every meal. What was it?
WC: “O Lord, look down on us with mercy. Make us thankful for these and all other blessings. Pardon and forgive us our sins. We ask for Christ’s sake. Amen.”
I quoted that at his funeral. He was a good man.