Will Campbell, civil rights activist and minister, dies at 88

6 Jun

Image from Interview with Reverend Will Campbell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965)

Reverend Will D. Campbell, an unconventional minister at odds with his native segregated South, has died at age 88. Campbell, the son of a farmer, was born in Mississippi and became an ordained minister when he was 17.  He served in the Army during World War II, and went on to attend various universities including Tulane University and Yale Divinity School.

His pastoral career was derailed by his opposition of segregation and his dedication to civil rights. A position as University Chaplain at the University of Mississippi ended with death threats towards Campbell because of his views. According to John Lewis, Campbell was fired because he played ping-pong with an African American janitor.

After leaving the University of Mississippi, Campbell moved to Nashville. From then on, he was involved in almost every major campaign in the civil rights movement, beginning with the student sit-ins in Nashville, the Little Rock school integration crisis in 1957, the Freedom Rides, the March from Selma to Montgomery, and many others. Campbell was also invited by Martin Luther King, Jr. to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Campbell was interviewed for the Blackside’s landmark series on the  civil right movement, Eyes on the Prize. In his interview he talked about the events surrounding the sit-ins in Nashville,

Mr. Z. Alexander Looby, who was a great man, a black attorney, conservative politically, a Lincoln Republican of many years–no  one could accuse him of being a, a wild eyed radical politically–and when his house was bombed or dynamited, I think it, it solidified especially the black community, and it enraged a segment of the white community in a fashion that nothing else had.There was the mass march to City Hall and there was a white Mayor who came out there and who with considerable prodding from that brilliant and beautiful leader named Diane Nash, who kept pushing him, “But, Mr. Mayor, you are our Mayor. Sir, do you think that segregation is morally defendable?” And he eventually had to say, I do not. Now that, in my judgment, was the turning point. That encounter was a turning point.

Interview with Reverend Will Campbell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Campbell went on to be involved in the protests against the Vietnam War. He also was the author of several books, including a memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977) which was a National Book Award Finalist.


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