Someone I wish I’d known …

Will Campbell, a maverick Baptist preacher who’d stand up to anybody for the sake of people on the margins, died Monday night, at age 88.

In this strip, Will B. Dunn looked forward to a day when there would be peace between black and white, Catholic and Protestant, Arab and Israeli, Baptist and Baptist. He was the sort of renegade Baptist icon that I admired from a distance and wished I’d had the chance to know him personally, but figured he already had more than his share of people horning in on his time, so I never pressed it.

The truth is, for much of my life and ministry, Campbell would have rubbed me entirely the wrong way. He was progressive from the start, way back in the 50s and 60s he was one of the very few white men who would risk his neck for black people in the heat of the Civil Rights movement — and probably the only man who could have a drink with Ku Klux Klansmen and care about them, too.

“If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ’em all,” he was known for saying.

Love him or not, the man had integrity.

It took me much longer to even begin developing the kind of inclusive and compassionate attitudes that Campbell demonstrated through most of his life, and of course I’ve yet to come close to the kind of commitment to justice, practically lived, for which he was famous.

I read several of his books and heard him speak a couple of times and always wished I could have heard more or known him better.

I managed only one brief conversation with Campbell, and that was largely wasted. I had heard that the late cartoonist Doug Marlette had modeled his character “Will B. Dunn,” the real star of the “Kudzu” comic strips, on Campbell.

I was a major fan of Will B. Dunn (in my office I have Marlette’s original artwork for a strip in which Will B. Dunn longed for Baptists and Baptists to get along), so I asked Campbell how he liked being the inspiration for such a popular and much-loved character.

I was a bit surprised that Campbell wasn’t crazy about the “honor.” He uttered a few choice words and complained that he’d had to give up his trademark broad-brimmed black hat and start wearing a straw version so he wouldn’t look so much like like the cartoon version of himself. He kept the cowboy boots, though.

And he kept to his nonconformist ways, too, determined to love people like Jesus did and open his heart to people on the margins.

We could use more people like that, with or without the hat …



  1. I've long been a fan of Kudzu. My father even took me to see the premier of the musical at Ford's Theater when I was 11. I wouldn't have made the connection if I hadn't read about Marlette's inspiration.

    I didn't come across Will Campbell until I was two semesters into divinity school, though the recommendation came from a friend outside the classroom. Campbell's writings on the centrality of reconciliation in the gospel has had a profound impact on me, and his approach to engaging Southern culture inspired me to revisit some of my own family heritage I had previously shucked off.

    I'd say he's a baptist hero who gives me hope for what our tradition can become, but he'd probably toss that label as quickly as a split straw hat.

  2. I believe the only Campbell book I’ve read was Brother to a Dragonfly and that was a long time ago. I remember it as a scintillating book, and his brother as tragedy. He was always to be commended for his unflagging support of the “little guy,” though the fruits of the civil-rights legislation have turned into very rotten leftovers for the black community, which continues to digress and make its way, collectively, into becoming a permanent underclass. Perhaps Campbell shared with Clarence Jordan the one flaw (if it be such) of inordinately dreaming the impossible dream.

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