Making a Difference: Renegade Preacher

By Towler, Katie | Humanities, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

Making a Difference: Renegade Preacher


Towler, Katie, Humanities


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. …

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