Tuesday, June 4

Remembering Civil Rights Activist Rev. Will D. Campbell, 1924-2013

Photograph courtesy of The Tennessean.

The Mississippi-born civil rights leader Reverend Will D. Campbell passed away last night at the age of 88.

Campbell grew up in Amite County, Mississippi, fighting pneumonia as a five-year-old and struggling, with the rest of his family, through the Great Depression over the following decade.

Though Campbell preached his first sermon at age 16, his devotion to social justice and civil rights was awakened several years later. Stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, Campbell read Howard Fast's novel Freedom Road on the recommendation of his brother. Upon finishing the book, which chronicles the rise and tragic demise of former slave Gideon Jackson, Campbell recalled, "I knew that my life would never be the same. I knew that the tragedy of the South would occupy the rest of my days. It was a conversion experience comparable to none I had ever had, and I knew it would have to find expression." (Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly, 1977)

Campbell went on to spend most of the Civil Rights Movement working for the National Council of Churches, and worked on behalf of various civil rights and social justice causes for the rest of his career.     

The SFA had the honor of hosting Campbell at our 2004 symposium, "The South in Black and White," where he delivered a Sunday morning homily. (He was the University of Mississippi's chaplain from 1954–1956 but resigned when advocating for integration put him at odds with much of the University administration and community.)

If you are unfamiliar with Campbell's work and legacy, we recommend educating yourself with this obituary from the New York Times. After that, watch the 2000 PBS documentary God's Will on Vimeo. And if you're like us, you'll feel gut-punched—in the best way—by Campbell's poignant 1977 memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly. Put it at the top of your summer reading list if you want a glimpse into the personal and social struggles that made Campbell the hero he was.