Will Davis Campbell

Will D. Campbell, civil rights advocate and author, was the only white person present at the founding of Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Campbell was born July 18, 1924, in the rural farm country of Amite County, Mississippi. His father, Lee Campbell, was a gentle and tolerant man who instilled in his son the values that would become the foundation for Will Campbell's support for civil rights.

At the age of seventeen Campbell preached his first sermon at the nearby East Fork Baptist Church; he was later ordained as a Baptist minister. He completed his undergraduate work at Wake Forest University, served in the army during World War II, and saw action in the Pacific. In 1952 Campbell received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale University. After a brief stint as pastor of Taylor Baptist Church in Louisiana and two years as Director of Religious Life at the University of Mississippi, Campbell moved to Nashville, where he became Director of the Southern Office of the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations for the National Council of Churches.

In that capacity Campbell traveled to many of the civil rights hot spots in the 1950s and 1960s, including Little Rock, New Orleans, Nashville, and Atlanta. In Little Rock in 1957 he and two other white ministers accompanied eight black students through harassing mobs as they sought entry to previously all-white schools. Shortly afterward, civil rights advocate Bayard Rustin invited him to Atlanta to attend the founding meeting for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which soon became the cornerstone organization for the Civil Rights movement in the South.

Campbell continued to support the movement, but in the 1960s he broadened his ministry to other causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War. He also reached out to those he had opposed in the past, including members of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout his work, Campbell preached a message of radical forgiveness and the call of God for reconciliation.

In 1977 he wrote his first memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, in which he expanded on these themes. The book drew widespread national acclaim and received a nomination for the National Book Award. Campbell soon became known as one of the most provocative southern authors. His other books include The Glad River, Covenant, Providence, and Forty Acres and a Goat. His most recent book is Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher (1999). Campbell lives with his wife Brenda on a family farm outside Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.

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  • Article Title Will Davis Campbell
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018