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Rev. Will Campbell, 88; civil rights rebel, societal provocateur

The Rev. Will D. Campbell was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and a noted author.

1977 FILE/SEABURY PRESS

The Rev. Will D. Campbell was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and a noted author.

NEW YORK — 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 Monday night in Nashville. He was 88.

A family friend, John Egerton, said Rev. Campbell had moved to a nursing home in Nashville from his family farm near Mount Juliet, Tenn., after having a stroke in 2011.

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Rev. Campbell, one of the few white clerics with an extensive field record as a civil rights activist, wrote a score of books that explored the human costs of racism and the contradictions of Christian life in the segregated South, notably in a memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly” (1977), a National Book Award finalist.

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.

Most of his scattered “congregation,” however, were poor whites and blacks, plain people alienated from mainstream Christianity and wary of institutions, including churches, that stood for progress but that in their view achieved little. He once conducted a funeral for a ghost town, Golden Pond, Ky., where the residents had been removed in the late 1960s to make way for a Tennessee Valley Authority project.

Followers and friends called Rev. 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 its way into books, articles, lectures, and sermons.

“Brother Will, as he was called by so many of us who knew him, made his own indelible mark as a minister and social activist in service to marginalized people of every race, creed, and calling,” former president Jimmy Carter said.

The son of Mississippi cotton farmers, Rev. Campbell grew up in a backwater of segregated schools, churches, and cracker-barrel country stores where men chewed tobacco and spat bigotry. He was ordained a Baptist minister at 17 and attended three colleges and Yale Divinity School before embarking on an unsatisfying life as a small-town pastor and then chaplain at the University of Mississippi. He left Ole Miss amid death threats over his integrationist views.

As a race-relations troubleshooter for the National Council of Churches from 1956 to 1963, he joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and other civil rights luminaries in historic confrontations across the South.

Rev. Campbell was the only white person invited by King to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1957. Months later, Rev. Campbell helped escort nine black students through angry crowds in an attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (The students were turned away by mob violence, but succeeded the next day with an escort of federal troops.)

In 1961, he counseled and accompanied Freedom Riders of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who integrated interstate bus travel at the cost of beatings by white mobs in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Ala.

And in 1963, he joined King’s campaign of boycotts, sit-ins, and marches in Birmingham, one of the country’s most segregated cities. In scenes that stunned the nation, protesters were met with snarling police dogs and high-pressure water hoses.

“If it hits you right, the pressure from a fire hose can break your back,” Rev. Campbell said years later. “I remember seeing adults and children hit and rolling along the sidewalk like pebbles at high tide.”

Later in the 1960s, after appeals to Christian churches in the South to end segregation in their own ranks and actively fight discrimination, Rev. Campbell abandoned organized religion, though not his faith. He accused Southern Protestant churches in particular of standing silent in the face of bigotry.

Widening his horizons in the 1960s, he protested involvement in the Vietnam War, helped draft resisters find sanctuaries, spoke against capital punishment, and turned against politics, government, and institutions in general for failing to provide solutions to the nation’s social problems.

His belief that Christ died for bigots as well as devout people prompted his contacts with the Ku Klux Klan, and he visited James Earl Ray in prison after the 1968 assassination of King. He was widely criticized for both actions.

In later years, Rev. Campbell campaigned for equal rights for women, gays, and lesbians and turned increasingly to writing. “Brother to a Dragonfly” was both an elegy to his brother, Joe, who died after years of alcoholism and drug addiction, and a memoir of the civil rights era and its bombings, murders, and terrifying calls in the night.

“Will D. Campbell is a brave man who doesn’t like to talk about it,” John Leonard wrote in a review of the book for the Times, “one of a handful of white Southerners — like P.D. East, Ralph McGill, James Silver, Charles Morgan, and Claude Sitton, all of whom appear in these pages — who Mr. Campbell says stood with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fanny Lou Hamer and John Lewis in the worst of times.”

After his years in the civil rights movement, Rev. Campbell directed the Committee of Southern Churchmen and for decades published Katallagete, its quarterly journal of politics and social change, whose title referred to a biblical passage on reconciliation.

In 2000, Rev. Campbell received the National Endowment for the Humanities medal from President Clinton and was profiled in a PBS documentary, “God’s Will,” narrated by Ossie Davis.

Rev. Campbell leaves his wife, Brenda; a son, Webb, two daughters, Penny and Bonnie; and four grandchildren.

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