Brother to a Dragonfly

The dead speak. If you're listening. It happens every day -- every day the paper publishes obituaries. They speak whole lives. Some of them can invoke a whole era, which suddenly becomes more alive, more real, than what passes for reality in the drab present. All it takes is a name in the headline above an obit. And you're transported. It all depends on whose name it is, and what life he lived. Suddenly you're back there.

So it was the other day when the name above the obituary was "Will D. Campbell, Baptist preacher." His name on the obituary page brought back the American South of the 1950s and '60s, the Furious Fifties and Seggish Sixties, because he was the exception to it -- a white Southern churchman who spoke out against racial injustice. That we live in a fallen world is scarcely news, but Will Campbell made the rest of us realize it.

He did it by shattering the stained-glass vacuum that the respectable church had become. Respectability is always the death of any living faith. The primitive, radical, living Christian is always a scandal to the hollow Christianity of the established church. Just as a band of disreputable types following some itinerant preacher was in ancient Judaea. "What's this, something good out of Nazareth?" In biblical times, such a prospect would have been as unbelievable as something good coming out of Mississippi in Will Campbell's time.

Walker Percy, something else good out of Mississippi, was an exceptional man, too, but an observer and diagnostician rather than actor in that quintessential Southern drama. Naturally he would notice the absence of faith in his time, the theological failure that always precedes/reflects the moral, cultural, social and political one. "If every Christian era has its besetting sin," Dr. Percy wrote at the time, "the 20th Century Christian South might well be remembered for its own peculiar mark: silence." (The emphasis is his.)

The race issue? The Issue of that time and, for that matter, of all of Southern history for so damnably long? Well, respectable people just didn't talk about it. And so the field was left to the haters and, worse, the opportunists who made a highly successful career of exploiting them. (Orval Faubus, anyone? George Wallace? The line is long and dismal.)

A bootleg Baptist like Will Campbell was anything but respectable. He actually believed all that stuff and, worse, acted on it. Of course he would be the one white minister present at the creation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Brother Campbell would go on to help found one of those (very) little journals that are always popping up to embarrass respectable dissenters. His was called Katallagete, the New Testament Greek for Be Reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:20). The magazine's circulation was as limited in number as the devout in a neo-pagan society. The saving remnant is always small.

. . .

Katallagete appeared sporadically till it didn't so much die as fade away sometime in the 1990s. Until at the end, to quote Brother Campbell, it existed as "nothing but a name and a tax exemption and whatever I and a few other people were doing on a given day."

Today the magazine's tax exemption would surely have been denied by the apparatchiks at the IRS, who would have noticed that it seemed to have something to do with conservative or religious values. That they might be the kind of values that scandalize the formally and only formally conservative and religious would be one of those details our ever obtuse tax collectors might not notice.

. . .

Brother Will believed in all that Be Reconciled business. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, you can't teach anybody anything unless you love them first. Will Campbell didn't just say it, he believed it. He lived it. He wasn't just an inside agitator for civil rights, he also volunteered as a chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan or, in his terminology, Kluxers. He would go to visit James Earl Ray -- yes, Dr. King's assassin -- in prison.

These were his people; he grew up with family Bibles that had the Ku Klux Klan insignia on the cover. You bet this bootleg Baptist would 'ssociate with publicans and sinners. He was that most scandalous of creatures, a Christian. And he wasn't about to deny or abandon his people.

. . .

Will Campbell once wrote a fine little book -- "Brother to a Dragonfly" -- that anybody who's ever had a wayward brother, or one he thinks is wayward, anyway, would identify with intuitively. Just which Campbell brother was wayward is a judgment we can safely leave to Another. Judge not lest ye be judged. Suffice it to say that, to Will Campbell, we were all his brothers, especially the wayward amongst us.

Brother Will was even known to associate with editorial writers on occasion, attending one of our national conventions that, alas, now have acquired all the trappings of respectability, from long-winded guest speakers to the plethora of awards we give each other. The convention Will Campbell attended was memorable -- I believe Al Gore was a guest speaker that year -- only because Will Campbell was there, and because of a completely false fire alarm that got all of us up in the middle of the night in our bathrobes.

So there he was, huddled with a few of us in the same stairwell of a shabby hotel in Louisville. Most of us had remembered to bring our wallets in the rush to leave our rooms; some had their toothbrushes and makeup bags. Will Campbell brought his guitar. His being there was the only thing I distinctly remember about that night or the whole convention -- because Brother Will had not only the words, a fine command of Southern country speech, but the music. Just as his faith did. ("What a friend we have in Jesus," we sang, "all our sins and griefs to bear.")

Even by then Will Campbell was less an unruly outlier than a folk hero and revered institution -- a great step down. For the civil rights movement had long since stopped moving, and become just another vested interest. He never did. You could always count on him to scandalize socially acceptable liberals, now known as progressives. It didn't surprise years ago when he came out against abortion, too. As long ago as the 1970s, he noted that "it's been a long time since I got a hate letter from the right. Now they come from the left."

He hadn't changed, only the ideological fashions had. His death at 88 brings it all back, the glory days of risk and faith before the Will Campbells became public monuments and wrote memoirs instead of manifestos.

As with Walker Percy, one thing predictable about Will Campbell was that he would choose life. Just as, even in death, he doesn't just bring memory back but makes it live again, be born again.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is

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