By Errol Castens
OXFORD – The Rev. Will Campbell was fired in 1956 as the University of Mississippi’s director of religious life for speaking against the segregationist standards common to the time.
On Friday, the University honored him posthumously by naming a gathering space near Paris-Yates Chapel “the Rev. Will Davis Campbell Plaza.” The dedication, which attracted leaders such as former Gov. William Winter and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, was part of the university’s Racial Reconciliation Week.
“No one has had more influence on me as a person and as a leader,” said Dr. Dan Jones, whose “very personal remarks” about his late friend marked his last official duty as the university’s chancellor. He noted the inscription, “For Dan, my friend, my chancellor,” on his copy of Campbell’s book “Brother to a Dragonfly,” which he called “my favorite commentary on scripture.”
Jones quoted two Campbell statements that reflected the Yale Divinity School graduate’s rejection of institutionalized religion: “All institutions are evil” and “The mission of every institution eventually becomes to sustain itself.”
“For me, his greatest gift was helping me understand the difference between my religious life and my spiritual life,” Jones said. “I believe that he would be pleased that his name was associated with a plaque outside this chapel rather than inside.”
Jones noted Campbell’s scandalizing embrace of blacks and later his even more scandalizing embrace of Ku Klux Klan members and others with whom he deeply disagreed.
“He taught us how to love people who were different from us and people who disagreed with us,” Jones said. Speaking directly to Provost Morris Stocks, who has been Ole Miss’s acting chancellor since Jones took leave from the post in June, he added, “Chancellor, in this position you will have many opportunities to practice this.”
Webb Campbell recounted several stories of growing up as his father’s son. One was of rereading his father’s books after his death in 2013. In one, Will Campbell had worried that his only son, coming of age in the 1980s, might be “a moral gelding.” Webb Campbell expressed the relief of reading his father’s scribbled note alongside that printed musing – “Didn’t happen.”
Webb Campbell also quoted another statement of his father’s upon being named honorary chaplain by Ole Miss.
“‘I have a received a number of so-called honors in my life, but unless one is honored by his own people, he is not honored at all. I have never forgotten that you are my people, and I have never been more honored,’” Webb Campbell quoted before adding, “On behalf of our family, that honor continues today.”