Maverick MinisterWill D. Campbell

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A Southern Baptist minister, Rev. Campbell started preaching using a Bible provided by the Ku Klux Klan. He considered himself a “good ol’ boy with crazy ideas” — most notably, that all men are equal in the eyes of God. He “preached about McCarthy one Sunday, the Negroes the next,” he said. In 1957, he was the only white man at the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When black students went to attend Arkansas’ Little Rock High School in 1957, he was one of the white ministers who escorted them past angry white protesters. Campbell quit organized religion in 1963 to practice what he called a “ministry of reconciliation,” holding weddings and funerals in his Tennessee log cabin for whites and blacks — and racists — alike.

“We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” Rev. Campbell would say. “He often got taunted because he was a pastor to the Ku Klux Klan,” said civil rights leader and United Methodist Rev. James Lawson. “He was on the human side, no matter what human. He loved all humans in the great spectrum of life.” Campbell drank whiskey, cussed freely “and had an ego. There was a whole lot about him that did not fit the description of a saint,” said writer John Egerton, a long-time friend. “But he had a keen sense of how unique it was to come out of darkest Mississippi into the larger world and realize that the rest of the world was as screwed up as Mississippi. It made it possible for him to do some really wonderful things.” Campbell was the inspiration for the Rev. Will B. Dunn character in the “Kudzu” comic strip; the black Amish hat the character wore was copied from the one Campbell wore. A reporter asked him why he attended the trial of one of his parishioners, a former imperial wizard of the KKK who murdered a grocer who sold food to blacks. Campbell screamed in response: “Because I’m a Christian, Goddammit!” Rev. Campbell died June 3 from the effects of a 2011 stroke. He was 88.

From This is True for 9 June 2013