This month is about more than hashtags and annual headline events. Black History Month is about remembering those who’ve fought the good fight for humanity and using the blueprint they left behind for current and future activists. Let’s not enter our fight for social and systematic change blindly. Let’s equip ourselves with the power of knowledge from the past and present. I invite you on this February journey through history with me. Here is my second acknowledgement, Rev. Will D. Campbell.
“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” said Will D. Campbell (Brother to a Dragonfly, 220).
Born and raised on an eight-acre cotton farm in southern Mississippi, Campbell worked the fields during the Great Depression. When given the opportunity to go to school, Campbell made the most out of his experience. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Wake Forest College (now University) and received his doctorate at Yale University Divinity School in 1952. By seventeen, Campbell was an ordained Baptist preacher. After graduate school, he served as a pastor of a church in Taylor, Louisiana.
Apparently, the overturn of school segregation laws in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka made Campbell aware of his opposition to racial discrimination. And so it begin, Campbell "got" active.
Not one to bite his tongue about right and wrong, Will Campbell used his privilege to speak against discrimination, overbearing government power, unregulated guns and contemporary Southern Baptist Convention. No one could avoid his scrutiny.
As a result, there are many accounts of Campbell receiving death threats because of his views. In 1956, he had to end his tenure at the University of Mississippi for associating with a black minister and inviting a white integrationist to speak at the university’s annual Religious Emphasis Week. Following this incident, Campbell moved his family to Nashville and opened the only southern office for the Racial and Cultural Relations Department of the New York-based National Council of Churches.
Furthermore, he was the only white guy invited to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1957. Within the same year, there was the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Campbell was one of the activists trying to escort the eight students through the angry crowd.
As history goes, the ninth student tried to enter the school separately (visit NPL’s Civil Rights room to see video of this).
“They've got this mob down there, which is in essence being supported, if not protected, by the Arkansas National Guard. They weren't on the side of admitting the children; they were on the /other/ side. They were there to keep them out. And all of a sudden here they go, without any discussion or any forethought. I didn't realize, I claim no heroics in the thing, but what does it mean to be a human being in that situation? Here go nine children, defenseless, into God knows what. So four of us simply fell in beside them and went down with them. Of course, they were turned back. It was all over,” said Campbell about the Arkansas National Guard.
According to history, they were not able to successfully integrate the school that day as the National Guard troops stopped them from entering the school building. Additionally, Campbell protested the Vietnam War by helping recruits find sanctuaries in Canada.
As his activism relates to Nashville, Campbell played a significant role in bringing racial justice to African Americans and changing the culture of our city. He worked with other Nashville activists like Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Martin Luther King, Jr. on campaigns, public discourses, integrated bus travel, kneel-ins and sit-ins.
Years later, Campbell shared a vivid memory of people getting sprayed with high pressured fire hoses, “If it hits you right, the pressure from a fire hose can break your back. I remember seeing adults and children hit and rolling along the sidewalk like pebbles at high tide.”
Although he’d witnessed such extreme torture, he held on to his belief that lasting justice prevailed only when genuine reconciliation was accomplished between people who would normally be at odds.
His desire to practice and preach reconciliation led him on his journey with the Freedom Riders. He was truly a man of his own belief without hinderance by institutional restrictions. He freed himself from any societal bond to reach the greater good for all people.
Unfortunately, we lost our brother in 2013. He lived his last days in a nursing home in Nashville. According to various reports, it seems he never fully recovered from a stroke he had in 2011. He was 88.
On behalf of the Nashville community, Urban Threads acknowledge Rev. Will D. Campbell’s strategic work. Thanks for providing a blueprint.
Watch God's Will, a documentary about Will D. Campbell narrated by Ossie Davis below:
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