Will D. Campbell
National Humanities Medal
Will Davis Campbell is a civil rights activist who talks with members of the Ku Klux Klan. He is a preacher who does not attend church or belong to any denomination. He is a writer who explores the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. The contradictory threads that run through his life are explained by one of his guiding principles: understanding the difference between belief and faith. "Belief is passive," he says. "Faith is active."
Campbell grew up in rural Mississippi. He was ordained in the Baptist church at the age of seventeen and went on to Yale Divinity School. He spent two years as minister to a congregation--long enough to convince him that his place was not in the institutionalized church. "Either the steeples weren't ready for me or I wasn't ready for the steeples," he says. At the University of Mississippi he was appointed the director of religious life, but he resigned in 1956 rather than disavow his support for the budding Civil Rights Movement.
For the next decade, Campbell traveled throughout the South, working for the National Council of Churches as "trouble shooter on race relations" and later, as director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen. He helped escort nine African American students through mobs opposed to the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was the only white minister asked by Martin Luther King Jr. to attend the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He bailed demonstrators out of jail during sit-ins and participated in the Birmingham campaign.
"If it hits you right, the pressure from a fire hose can break your back," Campbell recalls of the violent response protesters met with in Birmingham. "I remember seeing adults and children hit and rolling along the sidewalk like pebbles at high tide. The decision was made to permit young children to demonstrate, and it was very controversial. Seeing those children alerted the nation and the world to what was happening, that this was a real threat to any claim of our being a democratic country."
Today Campbell lives outside Nashville, where he farms and writes. The author of sixteen books, he has received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union and state awards in both the arts and humanities from the Governor of Tennessee. His memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, won a National Book Award nomination and was named one of Time magazine's ten most notable works of nonfiction of the 1970s. Campbell is the subject of a PBS documentary titled God's Will, which aired in 2000.
A voice of conscience that challenged church leaders to join the fight against racism in the early sixties, Campbell has been described by Jimmy Carter as "a deeply religious man." In his writing and his preaching, he has continued to push for the breaking down of barriers in American society.