Weatherford Democrat

July 26, 2013

NOTES FROM THE JOURNEY: The passing of the ‘bootleg preacher’

Weatherford Democrat


One of my heroes, Will Campbell, died last month in a Nashville nursing home at the age of 88. He was a courageous, maverick Baptist preacher who became one of the most prominent white clergymen in the South in the fight for racial equality during the civil rights movement.

Campbell grew up on a small cotton farm in Mississippi during the Great Depression, served in the Pacific as an Army medic during World War II, and later graduated from Wake Forest and Yale Divinity School. He humorously referred to himself as a “bootleg preacher.”

On the one hand, Will Campbell understood the struggles of poor whites in the South and sought not to judge the racists among them. He was fond of saying, “Mr. Jesus died for bigots as well.” He ministered to members of the Ku Klux Klan and visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray, in prison.

On the other hand, having been raised in a racially tolerant family and observing the suffering of the blacks in the South, Campbell dedicated his entire adult life to bringing the Jim Crow era to an end. He was perhaps the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. He accompanied black students as they braved the white mob in the integration of Little Rock High School, ministered to the families of the children killed in the church bombing in Birmingham and, when Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, went to Memphis to stand with King’s grieving followers.

As his obituary noted, the rebel preacher came to be trusted by both blacks and whites as he straddled the two worlds of the segregated South. He was described as “one of the few people who could offer support on both sides.” Campbell offered this simple explanation for the ministry to which he devoted his life: “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ‘em all.”

His gift for being able to see both sides of our human predicament is what I admire most about Will Campbell. He mirrors the life of Jesus, who not only loved and understood his own and those who were being oppressed, but also his enemies and the oppressors. And Jesus, we believe, is the human face of God.

My own experience over the years in ministry and counseling has borne out the truth of what Campbell wrote in his autobiography “Brother to a Dragonfly” – that “the one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” I’ve also learned that it’s much easier to talk about than it is to practice – even with God’s help.

In this young millennium, when tragedies too often divide us, we would do well to heed the call of Jesus and his “bootleg preacher” to respect and better understand each other and our own inwardly divided selves.

Lord, in the words of Francis of Assisi, grant that we might not so much seek to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. Amen.

John Paul Carter’s “Notes From the Journey” is a regular feature of the Weatherford Democrat.