A very significant figure in the history of the South was born in Mississippi in 1924. A good many Southerners remember him with great fondness. But many more have never heard of Will Campbell. He was a Baptist preacher who never once behaved as he was expected to. Salvation South editor Chuck Reece is here with a remembrance in this week’s commentary.

Will Campbell with Ralph David Abernathy in Memphis in 1968

The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy with Will Campbell in 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, hours after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Credit: Courtesy of Salvation South


If you grew up in the American South, you’ve probably heard of a civil rights organization that’s been around since the 1950s: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Its founders were a who’s who of civil rights leaders, many of them men of the cloth, like the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and, of course, its first president — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sixty people were present when the SCLC held its first convention in Montgomery, Ala., in 1957. And all of those people were Black, save one. His name was Will D. Campbell, a Baptist preacher from Mississippi.

Will Campbell did not oppose the civil rights movement, he fought for it; doggedly and consistently. He became one of Dr. King’s closest confidantes. A month after that first SCLC convention, when nine African American students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Campbell was there to escort them. He endured hostilities and death threats for supporting the movement. He parted ways with the Southern Baptist Convention because it took no substantive action to support the movement.

He was known to remark that he was not a Southern Baptist, just a Baptist who happened to be Southern. He was so unlike most white clergy of the era that folks referred to him as “the bootleg preacher.”

Now, Campbell has been on my mind since Salvation South, the magazine I edit, got an essay about him by one of our regular contributors, a modern-day Baptist minister named Justin Cox. Justin was born and raised in western North Carolina and now pastors a congregation in Connecticut. And it was Will Campbell who inspired him to follow the path that he’s on today.

I don’t tell you about Will Campbell today because I hope you will do any particular thing as a result. I’m probably doing it just because I’ve got a soft spot for Southerners who don’t fit the stereotypes. And because I find inspiration in Campbell’s life. Maybe you will, too. He departed this Earth a decade ago, but left hundreds of thousands of words behind: nearly 20 books, including a memoir called Brother to a Dragonfly.

It contains a passage that just beautifully embodies our time-tested Southern tradition of comforting others with food. Let me read it to you:

I brought you some fresh eggs for your breakfast. And here’s a cake. And some potato salad. It means, I love you. And I am sorry for what you are going through and I will share as much of your burden as I can. And maybe potato salad is a better way of saying it.

Maybe Will Campbell never acted like somebody of his era and culture was expected to, but he surely embodied some of the South’s better qualities.

You can read Rev. Cox’s essay about Rev. Campbell at SalvationSouth.com.

Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. Salvation South Deluxe is a series of longer Salvation South episodes which tell deeper stories of the Southern experience through the unique voices that live it. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and wherever you get your podcasts.