By NEMS Daily Journal
A Mississippi-born giant of the civil rights movement and racial reconciliation, the Rev. Will D. Campbell, died Monday night in a Nashville hospital of complications from a stroke. His death ended nearly 60 years of consistently outspoken, passionate and compassionate advocacy for respect, acceptance and equal standing for all people.
Campbell, a white Baptist preacher who was reared in Amite County, held degrees from Wake Forest College and Yale Divinity School, but he was a pastor only briefly before starting a fearless career breaking new ground in the post-World War II South, including a short and controversial stint as director of religious life at the University of Mississippi.
The power sructure at the university and outside did not like his advocacy for integration and civil rights in the 1954-56 term of his work at Ole Miss, and he left Mississippi, living most of the rest of his life in the Nashville area.
He wrote prolifically, preached some, and enaged openly with blacks and other progressive whites in the marches and demonstrations that gradually pried open closed southern society. He also befriended and ministered to Ku Klux Klansmen and other poor whites, identifying with them from his upbringing in rural poverty and believing them to be victims of a system that benefited from pitting poor people of both predominant southern races against each other.
His theological views on which he based his civil rights positions and his respect for and outreach to all kinds of people, especially the outcast, also included opposition to abortion and the death penalty.
In a 2003 interview with the Journal of Southern Religion he described what the regime was like that drove him out of his job at Ole Miss.
“When I was at Ole Miss, the state Legislature passed a law, I guess, that everyone who was on the staff or faculty at Ole Miss had to sign a document of every organization they had ever belonged to. Well, of course, they were looking for NAACP members. Anybody would have been a fool to admit that. At that time, I wasn’t a member of NAACP … At first, it was such a terrible violation of what I knew as my civil rights. It was none of their business. I put down that I belonged to the Baptist Church and the Masonic Lodge, I think, two of the safest outfits in the state. I then turned it in. Of course, I did not survive anyway.”
Mississippians should never forget how bigotry cost us the resident brilliance of so many sons and daughters.