The Backpage: The Rev. Will Campbell, 1924-2013

Friday, June 7, 2013 at 1:55am
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The Rev. Will Campbell


William Davis Campbell, the self-proclaimed "bootleg preacher," died in Nashville on Monday at 88. Born in Mississippi, Campbell was an author, civil rights activist and minister, ordained by the Baptist church when he was just 17. He served in World War II as a combat medic.

Upon his return, Campbell received degrees from Wake Forest College and Yale Divinity School, then a breeding ground for activists. He was very active in the civil rights movement, participating in marches, sit-ins and boycotts in some of the South’s most segregated cities. Always a writer, Campbell penned more than a dozen books including a National Book Award finalist, Brother to a Dragonfly, where this passage is excerpted:

“Ah, Brother ‘Skeeterhawk.’ I remember. The barn, the Moore Pasture, and the fields. I remember all the things you taught me and all the love you gave. O’ Dragonfly, why did you fly so fast? And so high? Where did it all begin? I still don’t know. But remember. I remember you. I remember us. Some day I’ll write it all down. I’ll write that book you were always going to write. But never did. It’ll be your story, Brother — the story of Joe. I remember the time you went out and bought a new typewriter, and three reams of paper. Carbons too. Josephine said you wrote half a page and never went back. I’ll finish it, Brother Dragonfly. All of it. You wouldn’t want me to make it up. So I’ll write it down the way it happened. I’ll be tempted to write it the way I wished it. I’ll be tempted to write it the way you wished it too. The way you wished it before it was too late. Before the world took you. But I won’t do it that way, Brother. I remember how you used to joke on birthdays and Christmas and anniversaries, 'All I want is a few kind words.' They’ll be there too. A few kind words will be there. Kind words for the dragonfly. I’ll make them as pretty as I can. You always liked pretty words. I remember the ghost stories and the poems. How you used to take chickens to the store when I was supposed to take them, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed. I remember the day you joined the CCC Camp. And the way you cheated at Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe so I wouldn’t be the one chosen for unpleasant chores. I remember the grave you dug for me when they thought I was going to die with pneumonia, so I wouldn’t be way up there in East Fork, away from you. And the way we sat huddled close together in the dark of that pit when I was well again. You were never ashamed to weep. And I’ll cry too, later, when they have all gone away. But not yet. Not now. For I’m the preacher here, the technician practicing his trade. And technicians don’t cry. Technicians don’t have kinfolk. I remember ole Leon and the day Noon Wells got killed. And Rover, who just showed up one day and then left. The way you are gone. And I remember it, Brother. I remember it all.”