An Earthy Preacher in a Pickup Truck

I recently discovered that all the back issues of LIFE magazine are posted on Google Books. Every article. Every glorious photograph. Every car and appliance and cigarette ad. And then I realized I was in trouble: I could lose hours of my own life scrolling through those digital pages.

I picked an issue at random. June 16, 1972. Because the cover article was about how the youth of the early 1970s were geeking out on the 1950s.

LIFE Magazine, June 16, 1972

LIFE Magazine, June 16, 1972

This cracked me up. The youth of every decade geeks out on some flavor of vintage, thinking they’re being cool and radical. (See my post “The Last of the Teddy Girls.”) When I was in college in the 1990s, it was all about trying to recapture the 1970s. And so it goes.

That particular article did nothing for me. But just after it was an article called “Fighter for Forgotten Men” by Marshall Frady. The subject of the article was “an earthy preacher in a pickup truck” who moved “among the Ku Klux Klan and the blacks, building bridges.” His name was Reverend Will Campbell.

1972 Will Campbell Article

I recently reread Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, so the image of the Southern Gothic traveling preacher is pretty fresh in my imagination. It intrigues me. So I read the article. And then I Googled this Will Campbell. Who was he? Where was he now? What had he been up to for the last 41 years? What I found out made me break out in Jungian chills. Will Campbell just died 72 hours ago, June 3, 2013.

So what had he been up to? He’d been busy becoming a civil rights hero. You know. No big deal.

Now, I’m not a religious person, and, frankly, a lot of religious people leave me scratching my head. I do my best to keep an open mind, to look deeper and find good intentions behind the often unapologetic and unquestioning bigotry so many Christians believe they must cling to in order to avoid Eternal Damnation in the Fiery Pits of Hell. But this Will Campbell guy drew a pretty wicked bead on humanity. He was hard to argue with.

Frady’s 1972 article painted a picture of an extraordinary man. Campbell, an ordained Southern Baptist minister hailing from Mississippi, escorted the first black children into Little Rock’s desegregated schools in 1957. Campbell explained: “I was trying to find my home in black people, like a lot of other white liberals…then some of my black friends like Stokely Carmichael started telling me, ‘Look here, man, we pretty much got things cool and together with our folks. If you want to help out real bad, why don’t you go to work on your people.’ I said, ‘Man, you happen to be talking about red-necks–they’ll kill me.’ And he said, ‘That sort of means they’re the problem, don’t it?'”

Campbell followed his friend’s advice. He followed it right into middle of the Ku Klux Klan.

During one late-night communion service in a Klansman’s kitchen, Campbell intoned, “Everybody in this room now who believes Jesus Christ is Lord, let them say Hallelujah! and drink to his victory.” Frady writes that with that, everyone had taken long, grave sips from water glasses of bourbon. Frady also writes:

Campbell is engaged in a quiet, assiduous guerrilla ministry, and his congregationers are not only Klansmen but also the desperate and dispossessed, both black and white, throughout the South’s haggard backwoods and urban barrens and the wintry ghettos of the North. He moves among them in his clanky pickup truck, often carrying no more than his guitar case with a change of underwear and a bottle of Tennessee mash “medicine.” He tarries a day here, three days there–mostly visiting, sometimes preaching–but always serving as a kind of bridge over those furious chasms between the forgotten men of both races.

How, you might ask, could a man of God hang out and drink with the KKK? Campbell quietly–though not without a well-placed curse word–explains himself, and he does so in a way that makes it damn hard to argue: “Whatever it is that’s keeping the red-neck a Kluxer and the black man a nigger–whatever’s keeping them outside and poor and without any hope–is the same thing for both. It’s the lack of anybody giving a damn for them….Black, white, Kluxer, preacher–we are all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

Campbell once spoke out during a hoity-toity civic conference at Georgia Tech. He said: “In a way, see, the red-neck’s been the special victim of the whole system. It took his head away. The system got about everything else from the black man–his back, a portion of his spirit maybe–but it never really managed to get his head. All along the black man’s known more or less what’s been going on. But the red-neck–hell, he’s never known who the enemy was. If you remember anything about the course of Populism, every time the poor white began getting together in natural alliance with the equally dispossessed black, he’d be told that it meant blacks were going to ravish his wimminfolks, and the Bolsheviks were going to invade the courthouse. He’s never known how he’s been had. So it’s the respectable folks, like us sitting right here, who took that head, blew out the light in that brain.”

And finally, I’ll leave you with this conversation between Campbell and a Nashville church official, as relayed by Frady:

Not long ago, Campbell incredulously announced in his committee’s magazine that one of the large church denominations headquartered in Nashville had just adopted an office security program that included Pinkerton guards and emergency provisions for the use of tear gas. Soon an amiable official of that church appeared at Campbell’s study….

The trim, dapper official explained that the church really had a duty to protect its premises.

After a short silence, Campbell softly inquired, “Protect it from who?”

The official cleared his throat lightly behind his fist: “Well, I’m aware you’d have no way of knowing this, Reverend Campbell, but the fact is, we’ve had a number of our people report lately—they’ve seen undesirables in the building—”

Campbell’s whittling knife paused. “Undesirables?”

The official blinked: “Well, yes, you know what I mean the sort—”

And Campbell murmured again, “Undesirables? Can you tell me, for the love of Jesus Christ, exactly who it is that our Lord asked us to reach and to serve?”

The official again cleared his throat and patiently submitted, “Reverend Campbell, I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to get across, exactly. You see, there’s also been some stealing going on—”

And Campbell snapped dryly, “Some stealing? Didn’t our Lord tell us, if any man take your coat, give him your cloak also?” Campbell’s voice now lifted slightly: “Yes sir, I do understand, I think. Yes sir. We’ve somehow wound up in the position, God help us, where our Savior’s church is forced to regard as undesirables those very people it was commanded to save, and to barricade itself against them, even if it takes gas to do it.”

The official, his face now florid, a faint film of sweat having appeared on his temples—said, “Now, I think we might be getting jut a little bit overzealous here—”

Campbell, shaking his head, muttered, “No we ain’t. We supposed to be zealous in these matters. See, I’m not blaming you, understand that. If I were in your position, I’d have to feel exactly the same way. You got to protect all that stuff over there. You enter into a contract with the devices and assumptions of Caesar—let’s don’t even say the devil, let’s just say Caesar—you got to act then according to Caesar’s terms. But those ain’t exactly the terms of the gospel, are they?”

The official only started at Campbell for several seconds, motionless, mute, and finally Campbell offered, “But it’s hard, ain’t it? It’s hard to get.”

After a long moment, the official at last said in a small voice, “Yes, it is. It’s very hard to understand, Reverend Campbell.”

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