Will D. Campbell is often asked, “So, what exactly is it that you do?” A sometime Baptist minister, storyteller, civil-rights activist, farmer, social philosopher, novelist, country-music crooner, and magazine publisher, Campbell has not held down a full-time job in more than four decades. And if the company he keeps is further indication of his character, it’s easy to see why he is so hard to pin down. Black radicals, poor rural whites, country-music stars, convicted murderers, intellectuals, senators, members of the Ku Klux Klan — Campbell has called all of them “friend.”
A Yale graduate, Campbell is the author of more than fifteen books. Among them are two memoirs: Brother to a Dragonfly (Continuum Publishing Group), which recounts his spiritual coming of age as a Southern Baptist preacher, and the equally powerful Forty Acres and a Goat (out of print), which focuses on his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his growing disaffection with both it and institutionalized Christianity. More recently, he has turned to writing social histories that explore the issue of race in the South, including And Also with You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma (Providence House). His latest book is Soul among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher (Westminster John Knox Press).
Like his sense of humor and his onetime fondness for whiskey and tobacco, Campbell’s quiet but influential role in the civil-rights movement is legendary. His organizing activities — which included attending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s formative Southern Christian Leadership Conference (he was the only white person present) and escorting the first black children into the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas — made Campbell the target of death threats in his native Mississippi. Calling his faith a “Christian anarchism,” Campbell seeks to live humanely outside the institutions of government and organized religion and is deeply critical of what commonly passes for Christianity today, as paraded by the religious Right. Viewed by many social critics as “the conscience of the South,” Campbell espouses a deeply radical understanding of Christianity based on reconciliation and grace for all. He even named the journal he co-founded with James Holloway Katallagete: “Be Reconciled.”
When a friend who was registering blacks to vote was murdered in cold blood by a Southern deputy, however, Campbell’s beliefs about grace and reconciliation were put to the test. He wrote, “The notion that a man could go to a store where a group of unarmed human beings are drinking soda pop and eating moon pies, fire a shotgun blast at one of them, tearing his lungs and heart and bowels from his body . . . and that God would set him free is almost more than I could stand. But unless that is precisely the case, then there is no Gospel, there is no Good News. Unless that is the truth, we have only bad news; we are back with law alone.”
Campbell still finds grace in the unlikeliest places. A restaurant formerly known as Gass’s Tavern is the closest thing he has to a church. After he and his wife, Brenda, treated me to lunch there, we retired to his writing cabin on his farm outside Nashville, Tennessee. Campbell began our talk by showing me a famous photograph taken in 1957 on the day Little Rock High School was desegregated. The photograph shows a black teenager wearing sunglasses and cradling her books, followed close behind by an angry white teenager, her face filled with hate. Then Campbell handed me a more recent photograph of the same two women, now middle-aged: Elizabeth Eckford, the frightened black teenager, and Hazel Bryan, the hateful white teenager. Today they are the best of friends. Campbell was present that day in Little Rock, and was asked to write some of the text to accompany the photographs in a book titled A Life Is More Than a Moment (Indiana University Press).
Lloyd: Do you think the civil-rights movement was a success?
Campbell: I think it was, as far as it went, and it went as far as it could go. You can’t make people love one another. It’s true that the lives of the vast majority of black people have not changed, but the lives of many have. Like John Lewis: When I first met him, he was seventeen years old and inarticulate. I knew he was bright at the time, though, and authentic. Now he’s a congressman in his fifth term, a very prominent member of the House of Representatives.
And there’s no more forced segregation. Down here in the sixties, black college students — sophisticated, intelligent, clean-cut kids — could not go into town and get a hamburger, couldn’t try on a dress or a pair of shoes or a hat. (They could buy them, but they couldn’t try them on.) And at the theater, they had to sit on the stairs or in the balcony. At least the movement got rid of that. So what black people gained is room to struggle, which they didn’t have before.
Lloyd: How about affirmative action?
Campbell: I’m for it. I know it has many abuses, like anything does. But, you know, I grew up on a little cotton farm in Mississippi. We sold our cotton for twenty-five cents a pound for years, and then found out that people just across the river were getting twice that. I think it would not have been unreasonable for us to say, “OK, for the foreseeable future, you pay us more than you’re paying other people, to make up for the past.”
The potential abuses of affirmative action are, of course, many. Any time you get government or an institution mixed up in something, there’s going to be money-grabbing or crookedness. Say you’ve got a billion-dollar contract, and X number of millions has to go to a minority. Someone can go out and form a company and get some black person and make him president of this little company, just use him, that sort of thing. But there are ways to prevent that. For the most part, I think affirmative action has been helpful and is still needed.
Lloyd: In your book Up to Our Steeples in Politics, you and James Holloway wrote, “In our day, we in the Church have tried to do God’s job while at the same time rejecting the only job that God puts before us” — essentially to “be” rather than to “do.” Were you speaking to the left wing of the church when you said that?
Campbell: Yeah, and we got a great deal of criticism for it, but nobody listened much. I was reading the galleys for a book called White Clergy in the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movement, and there was quite a bit about me and Holloway in it. The author was big on us because we supported the sit-ins, but then he said we were saying things no different from what Billy Graham was saying. Well, he totally misunderstood. When we said, “Be a Christian,” who we really got that from was Thomas Merton: Be what you are. You are already katallagete; you are already reconciled. So behave as if that’s true. It’s a fine point to make, but it’s a very important and, I think, radical point. But I would rather be saying what Graham was saying back then than what some of the “liberal” activists were saying — that we were going to go out there and establish the kingdom of God. Well, they tried it and couldn’t pull it off. If we have a conference and work toward our goal, we don’t get anywhere. But if we behave as if we are all brothers and sisters and are all reconciled — that does take care of the social problems.
Lloyd: Would you call your upbringing fundamentalist?
Campbell: I wouldn’t have known what that meant then. To me, we were just Christian. After I left and came back, though, I realized we were fundamentalist. But we weren’t the kind of right-wing Southern Baptists you see now. I don’t really see them as authentic fundamentalists. Fundamentalism was once a reputable theological position. That’s not what these people are about. These people are mad!
Lloyd: I remember you said somewhere that it’s impossible to build an institution, like the church, on an unconditional message, like the Gospel.
Campbell: Well, I think it’s impossible to build an institution on the message of unconditional grace for all; to keep me in an institution, you’ve got to have something to threaten me with. The fundamentalist would say I’m going to hell if I don’t do this or that. Even if you’re a Unitarian or a Methodist or whatever, there is a line that you are expected to toe, and if you cross that line, you’re out.
Now, institutions are inevitable. I don’t say I’m exempt from them. I just don’t trust them. I think they’re up to something. They’re after my soul, my allegiance. I don’t trust religious institutions, and I certainly don’t trust governmental institutions. But I have to deal with them.
I told my children when they were growing up: “Here comes the old yellow school bus. Now, you’re going up there, and if you’re lucky, you will learn a couple of very important skills — how to read and write. But remember, their job is to mold you in the image of the state. They do a very good job of it, and they are after your soul. As long as you remember that, you can take whatever they have to offer and say thank you and be grateful.”
And the institution of the church has something to offer. When I was growing up in a very remote rural area of Mississippi, the Baptists read the Bible to us. And I’m grateful for that. That was a tremendous gift, a tremendous role they played in my upbringing — to read the Bible to me.
Lloyd: And your thanks to them ends there?
Campbell: Pretty much.
Lloyd: They planted the seed in you, but it didn’t flower?
Campbell: Well, that’s hard to say. Where do ideas come from? When people ask me how I got my ideas about race, I point to something that happened when I was four, maybe five years old. All of us Campbell kids played down at Grandpa Bunt’s house on Sunday afternoon, and we would taunt this black man coming down the dirt road, calling him “nigger.” Grandpa Bunt, who could just barely read and write, called us all around and said, “Hon, there ain’t no niggers in this world.” (He called everybody “Hon.”) We said, “Yeah, there is, Gramps. There’s one.” The man was still walking along the road. Grandpa said, “He is a colored man” (“colored” being an acceptable term in those days). Now, that’s as far as he took it. He didn’t go into sociology or the history of racism. He just said that you don’t insult people; it’s bad manners.
And in the same way, the institution of the church didn’t teach me theology. Rather, the East Fork Baptist Church very gently said, “For God so loved the world . . .” And I’m grateful for that. Maybe that’s all it should have done. Maybe what Grandpa Bunt did is all he should have done. If he had lectured us or whipped us, that might have made me the worst racist who was ever born.
Lloyd: You’ve said in the past that universities and other institutions are more racist than the Klan.
Campbell: What does racist mean? More and more, I find that a meaningless term. I think a better term would be “racialist.” Racist implies someone who really hates. Racialism is an assumption that is so far beneath the surface we don’t even see it: the subliminal assumption that somehow white people have the right to run things. I know fewer and fewer white people who really hate black people, but I know many who would have second thoughts about a black person becoming president of the United States.
Lloyd: Do you ever get just plain tired of talking about race, of people asking what we can do, how we can make things better?
Campbell: When people ask me that question, I say it’s the little things that really matter. Everyone who is white or black should have one very close friend, like Hazel Bryan, the white woman in that picture, who now has a very good friend who is black. She once abused and badly mistreated Elizabeth Eckford, but now she would die for her. And if everyone had one friend of another race who would be there to talk about anything they wanted to talk about, any time of the day or night, I think we’d be a better country. I know that sounds terribly artificial. You can’t just go out and say, “I’m going to be your best friend.” But so far as what we can do to make this world less racist — less “racialist” — that’s it.
“My name is Will Campbell, and I’m from Mississippi. . . . Obviously, I have this incurable skin disease — I’m white — and I’m a Baptist preacher. . . . I am pro-Klansman because I am pro-human being.” And absolute bedlam broke loose. That’s the only time I was ever truly fearful for my life.
Lloyd: You made a controversial speech some years back at New York City’s Riverside Church, which was founded by John D. Rockefeller. What exactly did you say?
Campbell: That was probably in the early sixties. They were studying what they could do, sitting there on the edge of Harlem and all the squalor, to improve relations between the races. I said, “I know what the real question is: What can we do to improve race relations in Harlem and New York — and keep all this?” meaning the church’s elaborate sanctuary. “And the answer is: Nothing. So what is this property worth? Let’s go out on the steps and auction it off, give the money to the poor. After all, that’s what Jesus said.”
That’s not the only thing I said, but it’s the dramatic part that people tend to remember and romanticize.
Lloyd: Did you actually expect them to take you up on your suggestion?
Campbell: [Laughing.] No, I didn’t.
Lloyd: But you got your message across.
Campbell: Well, I hope so. There was a film company there doing a documentary, and the director said, “Will, you look so tiny up there to be saying those big things. You must have a lot of courage.” But it didn’t take much courage. The members of Riverside Church were nice people; they weren’t going to shoot me or take me out and flog me. They may have gotten pissed off, but I felt no threat from that congregation.
Now, the speech I gave at a student conference in Atlanta — there, I felt threatened. The audience was the Weathermen and all the real radical, burn-the-motherfucker-down folks. They had shown a film, The Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire, and I was supposed to respond. They didn’t know me at all, so I got up to the podium and said, “My name is Will Campbell, and I’m from Mississippi.” A few ears perked up then. “Obviously, I have this incurable skin disease — I’m white — and I’m a Baptist preacher.” Now I had their attention: Baptist, from Mississippi, and white! And then I said, “I am pro Klansman because I am pro-human being.” And absolute bedlam broke loose. That’s the only time I was ever truly fearful for my life. I had no way out.
Finally, some black guy jumped up, clapped his hands, and shouted, “All blacks out of the house! Follow me!” He started out, and all the blacks followed him: maybe half the audience. When everybody had calmed down, I said, “With three sentences from me, you became the thing you detest. You became angry and violent and irrational. I said ‘pro-Klansman’; I didn’t say ‘pro-Klan.’ ”
“I suppose you think Hitler was a human being!” someone shouted.
I said, “Indeed, I do. I know of no other animal that could do what Hitler did — only a human being.”
Gradually, they began to listen. Now, the film they’d seen was of an actual Klan initiation, and when the Klan leader gave the order “Right face!” one guy turned left — and everyone in the audience had cheered and laughed. “You know,” I said, “you are supposed to be the radicals, but I’m the only radical in this building. You saw a poor, pitiful guy who’s been held in subjugation all his life, who doesn’t know his right hand from his left, and you laughed at him.” I was getting my nerve up by then. “You’re the ones who’re gonna lead the revolution?” I said. “You watched a film produced by CBS, the Establishment of the Establishment, and you swallowed it hook, line, and sinker! So don’t give me this shit. You’re not radicals.”
Lloyd: What about the conference where lay theologian William Stringfellow spoke?
Campbell: That was an interracial, interfaith, and interdenominational conference on race relations that was supposed to end all conferences on race relations. All the heavyweights were there: Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr., and the rest. Stringfellow got up and said, “The issue at this conference is baptism.” Now, I knew what he meant — that racism is largely a Christian problem, and if Christians really took seriously their baptism, there wouldn’t be a problem; we’d all be one. But, once again, bedlam broke loose. Even Rabbi Heschel said, “That’s like me saying the issue at this conference is circumcision.”
Lloyd: So what exactly is your understanding of what Stringfellow meant?
Campbell: Well, he meant that if you take seriously your baptism — the sacrament symbolizing that all people are made one in Christ — then, as Saint Paul said, there’s no such thing as black and white. We’re all one people. Of course, Stringfellow wasn’t about to get up and explain all that; he was having too much fun seeing how the statement was interpreted.
I was due to speak a day or two after that, and I had done something I’ve never done since: sent a prepared text to the conference organizers. And one of the things I said in my text was that, if we believe all people are equally good, then we also have to believe that all people are equally bad. And if we believe — as I do — that black people are equal to white people, then we have to believe that, if and when they gain the power and the might, black people will behave precisely the way white people behave. And so, I said, if I live to be eighty, I expect to see white children marched into the gas chamber at the hands of a black Eichmann.
My superiors at the National Council of Churches said, “You can’t say that at this conference.” I said, “Well, that’s what I believe.” And my bosses said, “Believe it back in Tennessee, but don’t say it at this conference, because that’s playing into the hands of the enemy.”
And who was the enemy? Poor whites, Kluxers, Southerners. But I didn’t believe that then, and I don’t believe it now. In many ways, we’ve conquered that poor-white racist element, but we haven’t conquered racism. It’s a corporate thing, an institutional thing.
Lloyd: What you predicted hasn’t happened, though.
Campbell: That was hyperbole to get a response, to make a point. No, my scenario didn’t happen, nor did I think it was going to happen. On the other hand, I do think it’s possible. The point is they won’t let you say that black people are going to behave the way white people behave — which is racism right there.
I was vehemently prolabor, growing up in a sawmill town, and I’m still prolabor. At that time, the president of U.S. Steel was making more than ten times what his workers made. But if the president of the Steelworkers of America had been in charge, he would have behaved the same way that corporate executive did. Power does corrupt. There’s a lot of corruption in the labor movement. I believed, in my youthful naiveté, that labor leaders were good people who were going to deliver us from sweatshops. And they did do an awful lot of good things. But they became corrupt. Which is not to say we don’t need labor unions — that would put all the power in the hands of the corporations.
Lloyd: This relates to what you said in Brother to a Dragonfly, when a friend asked you to define Christian belief in ten words or less. You answered: “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”
Campbell: An awful lot of people would say, “We’re all good, therefore God loves us.” But I prefer to explain it in terms of original sin. It isn’t popular, but I’ve never come up with any better understanding of it.
By “original sin,” I don’t mean a story about an apple or a snake in a tree, but the inherent self-loving, self-preserving nature of human beings. Say you and I are trapped on a ledge the size of this room. We’re friends, and we’re in this thing together. But then the ledge starts to crumble, until it’s about the size of that hearth over there. Maybe we’re still OK. But when it gets to the size of that stove, and there’s room for only one of us, if I have anything to do with it, you’re going to plummet to your destiny. And I’m pretty sure that, if you have anything to do with it, I will plummet. That’s all original sin means to me.
Lloyd: Your idea of grace — that we are all reconciled with God no matter what sins or crimes we might commit — doesn’t seem to fit very well with our notions of justice.
Campbell: Perhaps not, but our human notions of justice are badly flawed. By “justice,” we often mean getting even. Look at the current drug laws: almost 2 million people locked up, the vast majority on nonviolent offenses, and the vast majority of them black and Hispanic. We call that justice, locking up addicts. I was a drug addict for forty years, and I was never once arrested.
Campbell: Yeah. Everyone told me it was too late for me to quit, but I quit anyway. There’s a higher rate of recidivism for nicotine than for any other addiction. But it’s legal. We let the cigarette manufacturers get up on the stand and lie through their teeth, and we only got a mere pittance out of them, not enough to hurt them.
Lloyd: In your book Soul among Lions, you propose that the government stop passing laws.
Campbell: Well, where has law gotten us? Now, I know that somebody has to decide whether a green light means go or stop. I understand that. But all of the laws that we pass today — and legislators have to pass some laws or people will say, “They were up there all year and they didn’t pass a single law” — do we really need them? Again, I’m being hyperbolic. I know it’s not going to happen, although maybe it ought to.
Someone, I don’t know who, once said that a Christian is someone who doesn’t think. First time I heard that, I resented it, because I thought there were already too many Christians who didn’t think enough. But then I realized the idea is that you don’t have to think. You instinctively behave a certain way.
Lloyd: You have said that you don’t take politics all that seriously, that you follow it as you would sports.
Campbell: I didn’t follow that story about Bill Clinton and his intern. If that thing came on the TV, I turned it off. I didn’t read about it in the paper, either, but I gather that it was the talk of the country for almost a year. I don’t know if he lied or not. If he didn’t, he should have.
One guy I told that to said, “You’re just a Mississippi yellow-dog Democrat, always defending Clinton.”
“I’m not defending Clinton,” I told him. I knew who Clinton was long before he got a blow job in the White House. I knew him when he was governor of Arkansas and let Willie Richter die. Richter killed a guy, then shot himself in the head — lobotomized himself, in effect. He didn’t even know what an execution was anymore. He asked the warden, “How long does an execution take?” The warden told him twenty minutes. “Well, then,” he said, “I’m going to leave my pecan pie here, and I’ll come back and eat it after the execution.” You don’t have to kill a guy like that. But Clinton did.
Lloyd: Do you see the presidency as being of any importance? Does it matter who gets elected?
Campbell: Well, I learned a lot from Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul, who said that government is run by technique, that there is a way to be president of a huge institution — say, a university. The good university president is not one who knows or does a damn thing about education, but the one who’s good at getting more appropriations, getting more Ph.D.’s on the faculty, getting more buildings, and making “progress.”
There is a way to run a government, and that’s the way everybody does it. And we do it with violence. We say that we don’t torture people. Well, my God, what is our School of the Americas doing? Training torturers to go wherever we need them. When Senator Fred Thompson said, “I have information that the Chinese tried to influence the election in America,” I thought, My god! How many elections have we not only influenced, but bought or killed for, all over the globe? That’s part of self-preservation.
Lloyd: What about a third party, someone like Ralph Nader, who believes all the right things, so to speak? Wouldn’t it be best to get someone like that in there?
Campbell: I doubt it. I don’t object to third parties — or fourth, or fifth, or tenth parties. Let everybody run for president. But once they’re in there, that thing runs itself. In a way, Clinton doesn’t have any more to do with the economy than I do.
Lloyd: In Soul among Lions, you say that the Christian Coalition is actually a bunch of closet liberals, because they believe in the perfectability of humankind.
Campbell: Well, the classical liberals believed that the function of government was to legislate social perfection. And that’s what the Christian Coalition wants to do.
A good friend of mine once said, “Will, what’s wrong with having laws that would make us obey the Ten Commandments?” It’s not an easy question to answer. If I had to decide on one commandment to adopt as an amendment to the Constitution, I would choose the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Not the god of government. Not the god of wealth. None.
Lloyd: You’ve been a preacher since you were sixteen. Who ministers to you?
Campbell: You; whoever comes by. I don’t “go to church” anymore. My last institutional church was a black church, the First Baptist Church of Capitol Hill. I just kind of dropped out, not for any real reason. But I always think about going back. I do miss it. When I dropped out in the sixties, it was for the same reason I quit voting: I wasn’t seeing anything in it that spoke to me. But maybe my needs are different now. Maybe the sands of time are running out. I’ve been thinking, Damn, somebody’s got to bury me someday — maybe I’d better fake it until the time comes.
Lloyd: So you’ll have a churchyard to be buried in.
Campbell: [Laughs.] Actually, I don’t worry about that. That’s all taken care of down in Amite County. They may hate me now, but they’re going to love me when I’m dead. They’re going to come from miles around to that old Hartman Funeral Home down in McComb City. They’re going to stand around my coffin all night and say, “Ol’ Will was a good ol’ boy; he just had some crazy ideas.”
Or maybe I’ll have my ashes spread in the woods back here, where my wife wants to be. I’m not too big on cremation, though. I don’t want to give the devil any help. Let him build his own fire.
Lloyd: So what do you miss about church?
Campbell: Oh, I miss the camaraderie. I miss the preaching, the singing, the coffee hour, the fellowship. And at my last church, the black church, there was what they called a “social ministry,” concerned with the poor and the homeless and so on. But that’s the exception. The white First Baptist Church in downtown Nashville started a petition to get rid of a mission for the homeless because some woman had gone by there and seen a homeless guy pissing on the ground. Well, where’s he supposed to piss? I mean, I can’t imagine thinking my righteousness is being disturbed by some guy who doesn’t have a place to lay his head. Not only am I not going to provide him with shelter, I’m going to deny him shelter anywhere else. I don’t know how people rationalize that.
Lloyd: Do you have a working definition of “the Church”?
Campbell: No, not really. I think it does exist, but I’m afraid to look for it, because if I find it and name it, I’m going to run it, if I can. That’s the evil of institutions. But Jesus said he would build his church in the world, and exactly where it is at any given moment, I don’t know. It may be here. This may be it, as far as I know.
Lloyd: How do you know if you’re in it?
Campbell: I don’t think you do. I don’t know when I’m in it. Take Gass’s Tavern, for example. For many years it was just a little country beer joint; whoever brought the guitar was the entertainment that night. Now they’ve gotten sophisticated and have a band, and I sit in. I’ve done a wedding for just about everybody there. I’ve buried numerous patrons who have died. I visit the ones who are in jail. Sometimes I get up on stage and pray for the sick.
Now, I could make a case that that’s my church, but I won’t, because if I did, the next thing you know, we’d have a bulletin, or drink only Pabst. And I’d expect to be rewarded for all the things I did there; they’d have to give me free beer or supper or whatever. So I don’t say that’s my church, but that is the Church at work in my life. I don’t like the word ministry — I don’t have a ministry, I always say; I have a life — but, for lack of a better term, that’s it. If somebody dies, they call me. My participation in that comes from the fact that the Baptists read the Bible to me way back when. It’s an instinct.
Someone, I don’t know who, once said that a Christian is someone who doesn’t think. First time I heard that, I resented it, because I thought there were already too many Christians who didn’t think enough. But then I realized the idea is that you don’t have to think. You instinctively behave a certain way.
Lloyd: Unlike many church critics, you have not taken the next step of creating an alternative institution.
Campbell: No, nor will I ever. If I believe that all institutions are inherently evil by definition, then I certainly can’t assume that I can create a better one. I might have a good organization for a while, but, before long, any organization is going to become hardened and rigid.
I remember Father Morrisroe, a Catholic priest who was shot because he registered blacks to vote. He stayed in our little guest house in the woods for part of his recuperation. He would say Mass every Sunday morning, and some of the neighbors around here who grew up in the church would convene — some of them Church of Christ or Baptist, and a number of them dropout Catholics. And it was pleasant and meaningful to see this guy who was almost martyred saying Mass. After he left, somebody said, “Why don’t we keep doing this?” and I said, “We won’t keep doing this, because pretty soon we’re going to start arguing about whether at Communion we have moonshine or wine or bourbon or grape juice. Then we’re going to repeat the same pattern all denominations have.”
Lloyd: So how do people come together to form a spiritual community?
Campbell: I think people do come together, like we do down at Gass’s Tavern. It’s when we institutionalize it — when we do it the same way every Sunday — that it becomes perfunctory and loses any meaning. I say this in spite of the fact that I like ritual, liturgy, and so on. But in Mississippi, when the preacher would stand at the Communion table and say, “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent ye of your sins and intend to lead a new life and live with love and charity toward thy neighbor . . . ,” it was a goddamn lie. People went up there, crossed their hands, and accepted the body and blood of Christ, but they didn’t intend to lead a new life, and they certainly weren’t living with love and charity toward their neighbors. They’d go out the next day and lynch some black person. That’s what I mean by it becoming routine.
Lloyd: What makes Christianity distinct from other religions?
Campbell: I don’t know as it has anything that makes it distinct. It has compassion, love, justice, brotherhood. But that’s not to say that other religions don’t have the same thing, maybe even in a better form.
I believe that God revealed himself to my group in a particular way: namely, through Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean that God has not revealed himself to another people through, say, Buddha. A Buddhist is not a Christian, and I’m not a Buddhist, but that’s not saying anything about either one of us. God is God. It would be presumptuous to say that God chose to reveal himself to my people alone and damns all the rest. I don’t believe that.
I knew that [the Klan’s] really wasn’t the most dangerous, vicious kind of racism. Theirs you could see and deal with, and if they broke the law, you could punish them. But the larger culture that was, and still is, racist to the core is much more difficult to deal with and has a more sinister influence.
Lloyd: One article I read described you as a guru.
Campbell: Well, I’m not a guru, and I’m not trying to be one. I don’t know anything that most people don’t know. I don’t have any answers. If people see in my life something that they want to imitate, that’s fine. But if I looked back and found a bunch of them following me, I’d fall apart. I don’t want anybody following me. I’d make a piss-poor god. I’ll help you up if you’re falling on your ass, but I’m not going to tell you what you’ve got to believe, or how to live your life.
Lloyd: But during the civil-rights movement, when you were behind the scenes, didn’t you ever covet the podium?
Campbell: That’s hard to answer. I think not, but that may be part of my own hubris. At the time, my brother Joe said to me, “Brother, don’t get into this. Stay out of it. But if you can’t stay out, then don’t get into it for a one-night stand.” I knew how to get on the six o’clock news in Little Rock any time I wanted to. But I had gotten into this for the long haul, and to get on the six o’clock news would’ve pretty well ended it.
Even though I wasn’t up front, there was — and I didn’t believe this for twenty years — a conspiracy to kill me. An old boy I grew up with told me about it shortly before he died. He said, “I was riding the road, looking for you. I wasn’t going to let them kill you, but we were going to have an understanding. I was armed.” Probably he would have taken me down to the swamp and beat the hell out of me. Growing up, we were best pals, blood brothers, had our little secret handshake and all that. Then I went off to school, and he stayed there, hauling pulpwood, joining separatist organizations. But still that bond was there. I think if they had tried to kill me, he would have said, “You’re gonna have to kill me first.”
So in that light, no, I never longed for the podium. No one would enjoy that kind of abuse. I had all the podium I needed.
Lloyd: Was this the same fellow who, when you were invited back to your hometown for a celebration in your name, said he would stand in the back with a rifle for your protection?
Campbell: It wasn’t a rifle. I hadn’t seen him for many years, and I went by and said, “If you’ve been reading the papers, you know that tomorrow night in McComb City they’re going to make a damn fool or a hero out of me, and I’m going to need some help.” All I meant was support, but he thought I meant physical protection. He said, “I’ll be there.” So I saw him come in, all hunkered down in his bib overalls, just as the house lights began to dim. He was like an apparition anyway: a bachelor, a hunter, a woodsman. He’d be out in the woods, and all of a sudden he’d disappear. I’m sure those eagle eyes of his didn’t miss a move. If somebody had made a move on me, he would have gunned them down. When it was all over, I got a standing ovation, and I went back to shake his hand, but he was gone.
Lloyd: You got a lot of flack for befriending the Klan in the sixties.
Campbell: More than I realized at the time. I mean, it was such an obvious thing to me: if you want to deal with a problem, you go to where the problem is. But later I found out that some people thought I was a Kluxer, that I’d sold out. Back then, there were white people going around acting like they were honorary black people. Well, I was white, and I wasn’t denying it. Sentimental liberals would go out on a march, maybe even get locked up for a few hours — but you’d better get them out of there pretty fast — and then go back home believing they were heroes.
Lloyd: Have you had any interactions lately with Ku Klux Klan members?
Campbell: I was at the trial of Sam Bowers, the former imperial wizard of the White Knights of Mississippi — by far the most violent and angry of the Klan units in the sixties. I sat with the family of Vernon Dahmer, the black man who died standing in his burning house, firing away with a shotgun so his wife and children could get out. They were trying Bowers for setting the fire.
Now, I knew Sam Bowers, too. While I was working on my book And Also with You, I spent the day with him in a very remote area of Mississippi called Sullivan’s Hollow, where most of the Klan’s nocturnal crimes were planned, and some of them were carried out.
Lloyd: Klan members trusted you even though you were once involved in the civil-rights movement, simply because you were one of them, a Southerner?
Campbell: That was part of it. I don’t know for sure. I think it’s just something they intuited: that I was their friend. I tried not to be too judgmental about them. I knew that theirs really wasn’t the most dangerous, vicious kind of racism. Theirs you could see and deal with, and if they broke the law, you could punish them. But the larger culture that was, and still is, racist to the core is much more difficult to deal with and has a more sinister influence.
Anyway, I wanted to talk to Bowers, so I went to the defense table. The word got around that “Campbell has switched sides — he was seen at the defense table with Sam Bowers!” Well, of course I was.
Then, when Bowers was being led away, I wanted to go back there and say goodbye to him, but they wouldn’t let me. A guy who covered the South for the Boston Globe saw me standing there looking at Bowers, and he said, “What are you thinking?”
I said, “I feel deep compassion for that man.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why would you feel compassion for any man that brutal?”
I said, “Because he’s a prisoner of the state. Jesus admonished us to visit with prisoners — no questions asked.”
The reporter said, “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why extend this man the courtesy — unless you’re some kind of a goddamn Christian?”
“Well,” I said, “I guess I am some sort of a goddamn Christian.”
Lloyd: Do you think the Dahmer family understood your visiting Sam Bowers?
Campbell: Well, I think they came nearer to understanding than people who were saying, “Will Campbell was seen talking with Sam Bowers.” But I doubt that made it any easier.
I wanted to visit him in prison, but they said he can’t have any visitors for six months. They have to break him first, institutionalize him, control him.
Lloyd: Has the six months passed yet?
Campbell: No, and by then Sam probably won’t want to see me.
Lloyd: You and James Holloway once wrote in your journal Katallagete that Jesus came to proclaim freedom to the prisoners, no matter who they are. Now, if the Kluxers are prisoners to racism, what does it mean to free them?
Campbell: Well, it means that we all receive grace, I think. That day I spent down in Sullivan’s Hollow with Sam Bowers, I was also writing about Duncan Gray, an Episcopal priest who, when the first black man was admitted to the University of Mississippi, went around all through the night trying to quell the riot. It dawned on me while I was down there with Bowers that if grace is total forgiveness for everything, then Bowers is the recipient of grace as certainly as Gray. That is a very radical and liberating notion, but it infuriates people. They want that son of a bitch Bowers to fry! They want him to suffer and pay. So that’s the kind of freedom I’m talking about: release to all captives — release from guilt and, consequently, release from physical prison.
Lloyd: With no conditions — not even that they have to change?
Campbell: That’s right, but once grace breaks through to you, in my judgment, you are changed. That is a change. You are free.