NEWS FEATURE: Crusading Preacher for Racial Justice Subject of PBS Profile

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) By his own admission, the Rev. Will Campbell never had “much truck in talk about differences.”

“I don’t recognize the concept of racial differences,” said Campbell, 76,the great-grandson of a Confederate soldier. “There is no difference in our blood or in our souls. Race is a sociological concept that scientists created _ it’s silly, it’s foolish.”

Campbell learned that early in life from his Grandpa Bunt, who overheard his then 5-year-old grandson taunting a black man who happened by Bunt’s rural Mississippi home one afternoon.

“Me and my playmates and cousins called the man a nigger,” remembered Campbell. “My grandfather heard us, but instead of spanking us or yelling at us he just sat down and told us, `That wasn’t a nigger. That was a colored man.’ I was about 5 years old, but I never forgot that _ it made a deep impression on me.”

So deep that some seven decades years later Campbell has chalked up more than half a century as a foot soldier campaigning against racism and social injustice, a lifetime chronicled in an hourlong PBS documentary, “God’s Will,” scheduled to premiere Aug. 25 (Check local listings).

The program is a rare step from the stage wings for Campbell, a Baptist minister cum writer cum farmer who has spent most of his time as a social activist comfortably cloaked in the behind-the-scenes anonymity he prefers.

He was the only white man at the 1957 Atlanta meeting that birthed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

That same year he was one of three white men who helped nine black students _ the Little Rock Nine _ integrate Central High, shepherding them past a chain of armed National Guard troops and a screaming mob of white people determined to keep brown faces out of the school.

“It didn’t take a saint to realize you couldn’t let those children go down to that school by themselves,” Campbell said matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t any heroic act.”

He rubbed shoulders with movement luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young, helping to organize demonstrations and sit-ins, and using the privileges afforded him as a white person to help promote racial equality.

“There was such a level of hostility to black people, and I could go to places black people could not go,” said Campbell, who insists he was merely “helpful” to fellow activists. “I could meet with a white mayor or make an appointment to talk to a white merchant about what we were trying to do _ things like that that needed to get done.”

An ordained minister since the age of 17 and a 1952 graduate of Yale’s divinity school, Campbell said he views social activism as a natural extension of his ministry. That belief propelled him out of the pulpit of his first _ and last _ fulltime preaching gig at a Louisiana church. “They realized I was preaching about `the Negro question’ and it was kind of downhill from there,” he said.

“As I read the Scripture, Jesus didn’t have much truck with institutional religion really. He was out there in the world, in the streets, healing people,” said Campbell, who refused a ministerial deferment and left Louisiana Baptist College to enlist in World War II. “Unless worship takes people out of the church and into the street to where the people of God are hurting and suffering, it has no meaning. Church isn’t about gathering and mouthing off every Sunday morning. Just to repeat God’s words Sunday after Sunday and go on about our business and not take some action to improve the lot of God’s people is absurd.”

A Southern Baptist defector, Campbell levels harsh criticism against the denomination he says “has gone insane.”

“They won’t let women be ordained and they support all kinds of nonsense like the death penalty that are as far from Baptist position as one can get historically,” said Campbell.

He scorns the Christian Coalition as a political movement and scathingly refers to televangelists as “electronic soul molesters.”

“What goes under the guise of Christianity today is so far removed from anything Jesus and the apostles could possibly have had in mind as to be unrecognizable,” scoffed Campbell. “Some churches have chandeliers that could feed the hungry for a year. It’s disgraceful.”

Campbell has no formal congregation of his own, reveling in the freedom of the “ad hoc” ministry he practices in the rural Nashville-area town he now calls home. His unorthodox ministry has earned some critics, acknowledged Campbell, particularly since the same commitment to Christianity and social justice that spurred him to the civil rights movement lures him to the jail cells of Ku Klux Klansmen.

“The Bible tells us to minister to prisoners because they are prisoners _ there’s nothing in the Old Testament that says we should be concerned about their ideology,” he said. “My call is to minister to prisoners regardless. But people do not understand that. It revulses the larger culture, as certainly the Klan’s beliefs should. But people don’t understand that you don’t convert or influence someone by refusing to talk with them.”

Campbell’s commitments to social justice and racial equality also surface “in some way or another” in each of his 16 books, the first of which, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” was a National Book Award finalist and is scheduled for re-release this month.

“To write about life in America is to write about race,” he said. “Racism is still a part of American culture, not just Southern culture, and as a writer I address that. In this country, race is an aneurysm on the heart and soul and conscience of the nation that we don’t seem to quite know how to get rid of. People just don’t seem to understand how irrelevant it really is.”


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