Will Campbell grieves for MLK

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Life has rescued and published a haunting series of 11 photographs taken by Henry Groskinsky in the grim hours after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Two of the images include legendary Baptist preacher Will Campbell, whom Life identifies as William Campbell and Bill Campbell. Life describes Campbell, author of the acclaimed Brother to a Dragonfly, only as a longtime friend of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in a photo showing the two men embracing as they grieve.

Life uses minimal text for each photo, and I understand it would be too much to expect that a caption go into much detail about Abernathy or Campbell. For the most part, Life lets the heart-rending images do the talking.

The University of Southern Mississippi offers a good virtual exhibit about Campbell’s life. Frye Gaillard depicted Campbell’s ministry well in his book Race, Rock & Religion: Profiles From a Southern Journalist:

It’s hard to say exactly what he did. He was simply there, moving among the people and offering what he could. In 1957, for example, he was one of three white ministers with Elizabeth Eckford, walking by her side as she and eight other black teenagers made their way through the Little Rock mobs, braving taunts and rocks and bayonetted rifles, seeking to enroll in an all-white school.

Gradually, he became a friend to the leaders of the movement — Andy Young, John Lewis and Martin Luther King — but also to the bright young radicals of lesser charisma, some of them filled with foolhardy courage, others simply quiet and determined, as they drifted into Selma or Marks, Miss., defying the wrath of the most brutal South. Campbell was awed by the bravery of it all, and yet he couldn’t shake a feeling in the back of his mind — a troublesome sense that however right and righteous it was, however important that the South be confronted with the sins of its history, there was something simplistic and shortsighted about the whole crusade, some failure to understand, as he would put it later, “that Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well.”

So he began to work the other side of the street, mingling with the racists and Klansmen, as well as the blacks, setting out from home in the early morning hours, rumbling through the Delta in his cherry-red pick-up. Armed with a guitar and a Bible and an occasional bottle of Tennessee whiskey, he would point himself toward the flat and muddy fields of Sunflower County, toward the straight and endless rows of picked-over cotton and the barbed-wire fences of Parchman Penitentiary.

Do click on Enlarge for the photos shown here, and consider visiting the full gallery of Groskinsky’s stunning work.

Hat tip for the gallery: My friend Edward Gilbreath of UrbanFaith.com.

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  • Jerry

    Thanks for this blog post. It’s worthwhile to remember people like Will Campbell who live their faith quietly.

  • Lucas

    Will Campbell is a smart man. His books got me to abandon the path of righteous judgment before I got too far down.


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