Will Campbell was one of three men who shepherded the Little Rock Nine through an angry white mob before the National Guard was federalized. He was the only white man at the founding of SCLC. He was a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, John Lewis and others, and worked as a strategist and negotiator at every major civil rights campaign of the movement. “He was”, according to David Halberstam, “a walking nerve center--enormously important, but so deft and nimble that the reactionaries never caught on to him. His fingers were everywhere, but when you looked around there were no fingerprints.”
This was an unusual role for a Baptist preacher from rural Mississippi. But Campbell, who had been ordained at the age of 17, came to view civil rights as an extension of Christianity, and after finishing a divinity degree at Yale, he abandoned the pulpit, but not the faith when he became a free lance operative for the National Council of Churches charged with doing whatever he thought appropriate to promote racial cooperation in the south.
His primary focus continues to be directed toward racial reconciliation, but he has also concerned himself with the interests which his fellow working class whites share with their black countrymen. He is by nature a populist, but mistrusts politics. His positions, like his life, defy conventional characterizations. He campaigns against the death penalty, war, and abortion. He supports the rights of women, gays, and blacks and approves of affirmative action, but mistrusts the power of government. And while preaching his radical Christianity, he saves his harshest words for the religious establishment, disdaining the Christian Coalition and referring to televangelists as “electronic soul molesters.”
Since the late 1960’s Campbell has also turned his focus to writing. He is the author of 14 books including Brother To A Dragonfly, the 1977 winner of the Lillian Smith prize and finalist for the National Book Award. He has numbered among his literary friendships Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Alex Haley, Studs Turkel, and Jules Feiffer. He has, himself, been the subject of two books, and numerous articles in Life, Esquire, and other publications.
The documentary was being produced by The Center for Public Television at The University of Alabama with a grant from the Southern Humanities Media Fund. Among those included in the documentary are former president Jimmy Carter, John Lewis, Jules Feiffer, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), and Waylon Jennings. The narrator is Ossie Davis. (60 minutes, © 2000)
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