By Ken Sehested
I was a stranger in a strange land, having left behind a Baylor University football
scholarship for the alluring but intimidating environs of New York University’s
Greenwich Village campus in Manhattan. I was so over being who I was, so eager for,
if frightened by, what was to come. Odd that it was there, so far from home, that I
should encounter the iconoclastic voice of a fellow Baptist-flavored Southerner
whose testimony would come to profoundly impact the tenor of my own.
“Here’s somebody you should know about,” said Dr. Carse, my religion department
mentor, as he tossed an open copy of Newsweek magazine across his desk. The
upturned page contained a one-column profile of self-styled bootleg preacher, Rev.
I quickly scanned the article through to the final paragraph which nearly jumped off
the page, ending with a quote from Will: “Jesus is Lord, goddamnit!”
Will’s name may not be widely known, but his presence was deeply felt, and in the
oddest assortment of circles, including Civil Rights activists, literary illuminati,
death penalty opponents and the patrons of Gass’s honkytonk near Will’s home in
Mt. Juliet, Tenn.
Will and his wife Brenda took my wife and me there for a catfish sandwich one
weekend when we were guests. As soon as we ordered dinner Will got up and began
to make the rounds of people he knew at several other tables, standing and chatting,
occasionally pulling up a chair for longer conversation.
“He’s doing his pastoral visitations,” Brenda said, with a smirky smile. The local
band that evening invited “Bro. Will” to join them as guest soloist for their last song
before intermission, and Will obligingly belted out that country favorite, “Red Necks,
White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.”
That’s one of the important lessons he taught me: that you might be a redneck if
white liberals got rich making fun of you. The other really important lesson, from
my earlier, first visit with him, newly-minted Master of Divinity from northern,
liberal Union Seminary that I was: “Don’t confuse your job with your vocation.”
Prior to that initial in-person visit, Will gave me one of the most significant blessings
a young writer could receive.
I had written a few book reviews for a Baptist publication, one of them of Brother to
a Dragonfly. A few weeks after its publication, to my great astonishment, I got a
letter from Will, typed on what was obviously an ancient manual typewriter. It was a
thank you note.
“. . . At first I resolved that I would not read reviews,” he wrote. “Being fully human,
fully sinner, when they began telling me that the reviews were favorable, I broke
that resolution. ‘But, by god,’ I said, ‘I won’t be stupid enough to respond to any of
them.’ Now I am breaking that resolution, though I believe for the very first time. “
“I break it for a number of reasons. I could say that I respond because you obviously
understood what the book is about, and that was not the case with all reviewers. . . .
But I am sure that the real reason is because of who you are—yes, ‘FAMILY.’ I am no
longer a Southern Baptist preacher. But I will be, for so long as I live, a Baptist
preacher of the South. There is a difference. . . .”
He went on to talk about his identity with our early Baptist forebears—before, as he
wrote, “we went to Baal-Peor and became like the things we detested” (referencing
Hosea 9:10), especially on the Anabaptist side. By that time he was fully exiled from
every Baptist institution (indeed just about every Christian institution).
Then he closed by saying, “I am grateful to you for pasting a small snapshot [of me]
in the back of the family album.”
About 15 years later, after speaking to a Baptist Peace Fellowship summer
conference, he wrote again (and returned an honorarium check I’d sent), this time
one hand-written sentence saying, “They’re ain’t enough of us to take money from
Campbell’s eccentricities are legendary. A small town Mississippi native, at age 17
he was ordained to the ministry by a Southern Baptist church in 1940, his Brother to
a Dragonfly memoir (which reads like a novel) won in 1977 the Lillian Smith Prize
in fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award. He would later be the only
white person in attendance at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (through which Martin Luther King Jr. would galvanize much of the
modern Civil Rights Movement’s history) and be the only white allowed in the
mourning circle outside Dr. King’s Lorraine Motel room in Memphis following the
assassination that set numerous US cities ablaze in despair.
In a high profile debate at a university over the question of capital punishment,
Campbell took to the podium—after his debate partner’s learned, lengthy defense of
the practice—to utter a one-sentence response: “I just think it’s [capital
punishment] tacky.” Then he sat down.
Will received death threats for his outspoken opposition to segregation when he
served as chaplain of the University of Mississippi; he accompanied African
American children attempting to integrate a Little Rock, Ark., school; he counseled
Nashville students—including telling them they could be killed, which they nearly
were—as they planned to pick up the Freedom Ride which had been disrupted by a
Birmingham, Ala., mob attack. Yet he carried out pastoral ministry to infamous Ku
Klux Klan leaders, infuriating closest allies by insisting that “if you’re gonna love
one, you gotta love ‘em all.”
Will knew that red necks were the mark of white tenant farmers and laborers who
knew nothing of the wealth accumulated by the nation’s (and not just the South’s)
Personally, I suspect Will would be privately pleased and vocally horrified that the
New York Times assigned a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to write his obituary. I
have witnessed a few moments when recognition—a feeling of being welcomed and
celebrated by kindred—was an experience of surprised delight that showed in his
face. None of us can be exiles everywhere and all the time. Yet he constantly
ridiculed notoriety of every sort, savaged institutions of every cut and cloth, and few
riled him more than fawning fans.
He was, as John Leonard wrote so long ago in his New York Times review of Brother
to a Dragonfly, “a brave man who doesn’t like to talk about it. . . .” Similarly, Rep.
John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement era, tweeted on the news of Will’s
passing, “He never received the recognition he truly deserved.”
Hearing such, I can imagine Will pausing his heavenly choir rehearsal of “Red Necks,
White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer” long enough to grouse, “Yes, John, that’s just the
point. Mr. Jesus didn’t say ‘blessed are you who find fame for your trouble.’
Trouble? What trouble?
*Another account of where the word “redneck” comes from is the “Battle of Blair
Mountain,” an August 1921 violent confrontation between coal miners in West
Virginia and a paramilitary force assembled by a mining company. The miners wore
red bandanas around their necks to identify themselves. For more see “ The Battle of
Blair Mountain, ” Evan Andrews, History
Ken Sehested writes at prayerandpolitiks.org. His most recent book is “In the Land of
the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions.