The Commercial Appeal
Campbell inspired passion for justice, reconciliation
I first heard Rev. Will D. Campbell speak at the National Conference on Religion and Race in January 1963 in Chicago.
Campbell, who died June 3 in Nashville, was one of several luminaries at that historic meeting. Others included Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, R. Sargent Shriver and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But I did not get to know him personally until May 1964 when my future father-in-law drove me from Nashville to a crossroads near Mt. Juliet, Tenn., to meet Campbell, who had offered me a ride to the orientation workshop he would conduct at a small rural church in western North Carolina. The workshop was required for white seminarians like me who were about to become “assistant ministers” for the summer in black churches throughout the South through the Student Interracial Ministry Program sponsored by the National Council of Churches. My Student Interracial Ministry placement that summer was at Parkway Gardens Presbyterian Church in Memphis.
We set off in Campbell’s old Mercedes-Benz, which had about 200,000 miles on its odometer, without a map or any directions. We got lost a few times along the way, fi nally arriving at our destination before dark. After the weekend’s training, as we drove back, Campbell expressed disappointment that I was the only “real cowboy” he had gotten to know and that I did not wear West- ern clothes, as he did, but instead dressed in dapper sweaters.
At Parkway Gardens, one of the projects I initiated was arranging for folks from that church and a neighboring white Episcopal church to gather for a daylong workshop held in a public park. I invited Campbell to be the speaker. Both congregations had studied his book, “Race and the Renewal of the Church.”
My initial experience with race and religion in Memphis had not been a positive one. In the fall of 1963, my seminary internship began at a white Lutheran church in Memphis.
At the first congregation council meeting I attended, an ad hoc committee
recommended that ushers not turn away black people who wanted to take part in the worship service. Rather, they should be brought to the very front pews in hopes that they would feel so embarrassed they’d never come back.
(The context in which such potential “visits” to segregated churches would likely take place is discussed in Stephen B. Haynes’s book, “The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation.”)
I had just come from deep involvement in leadership roles in ecumenical Student Christian Movements, which had been championing interracial equality for years, so this was a pretty strong signal that this might not be a good fit for me as intern.
In fact, my internship in this congregation was cut short by a small group in the congregation, spearheaded by two men who circulated a petition, which I was never permitted to see, proposing that my internship be terminated early. The interracial composition of the Lutheran Student Association I had formed, at my supervising pastor’s request, on the recently integrated campus of Memphis State University had upset some members in the congregation.
The following year, when I was about to graduate from Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Campbell called and asked me to return to the South to serve as chaplain for young civil rights workers in Mississippi and Alabama under the auspices of the Committee of Southern Churchmen. My seminary president supported the idea, but the head of my denomination vetoed it, saying it would set a bad precedent.
Having been prevented from being ordained into this unique chaplaincy, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Christian social ethics at Yale. Although this led to an academic career rather than ordained ministry, my developing vocation was deeply influenced by Campbell and others I had met that year, particularly Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., then pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis and one of King’s key lieu- tenants.
What they modeled inspired my passion for peace, justice and reconciliation among all people, which from that time onward provided a focus for my teaching, research and social activism.
Lawson, now retired from his most recent pastorate in Los Angeles but still active in civil rights, conducted Campbell’s memorial service last Saturday at Saint Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory, Tenn. Some 700 people attended the service, representing Campbell’s diverse, multiracial, ecumenical “scattered congregation.”
Over the years, when my then-wife (we met in Memphis) and I returned to visit her parents in Nashville, we often visited Will and Brenda Campbell in their home, during which time Will would offer us a bacon grease-drizzled “wilted lettuce” salad and a glass of “moonshine whiskey” that he had gotten from a neighbor.
On one of those visits, he had just recovered from major surgery, and he regaled us with his story of having died on the operating table and having been resuscitated, but he reminded us that he was not the first one to have been resurrected from the dead.
This “bootleg preacher” will be deeply missed. W. Merle Longwood is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.