The Common Good
August 1977

The Theological Education of Will Campbell

by Will Campbell |

The personal story of a minister's conversion.

P. D. East was the illegitimate son of a prominent but promiscuous Mississippi daughter. He came to be cared for, and later adopted by, an itinerant sawmill couple who brought him to manhood in the logging camps of southern Mississippi.

by Henry Groskinsky/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Ralph Abernathy & Will Campbell in 1968 after King's assassination. by Henry Groskinsky/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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He bought the Petal, Mississippi, newspaper (The Petal Paper) shortly before the Supreme Court decision of May 17,1954, on the unconstitutionally of separate-but-equal public schools. By editorially advocating complete integration at every level of society, he hit upon a formula for journalistic suicide. In a combination Will Rogers-Mark Twain style he began satirizing the state legislature, making fun of the powerful White Citizen’s Council, the Governor, Senator James Eastland and anyone else he considered deserving of his wrath and wit. He proposed editorially that the state engage in a bit of zestful zoology and adopt the crawfish as the state symbol—because it always moved backward, and generally into the mud from which it came.

All this led to the demise of his newspaper as a profitmaking venture within a matter of months. He continued to publish his little tabloid, but without a single local advertiser. And soon it had to be done in exile, as he grew weary of the constant threats upon his life and the lives of his wife and child. With fundraising letters from people like Harry Golden and John Howard Griffin he managed to survive in Fairhope, Alabama, outside Mobile, and continued to send his paper to several thousand folks, not one of whom lived in the county where his paper had originated.

Through P.D., my brother Joe and John Howard Griffin became good friends. John Howard some years earlier had dosed himself with a combination of chemicals, rubbed his body with various dyes, turned his skin dark enough to travel around the South as a Negro. The resulting book became the widely circulated Black Like Me. But the book had not endeared him to Mississippi political figures, and whenever he was in the state for business or social purposes he feared for his life. Joe would hide him and P.D. in the back of his pharmacy or in his home and when they left would follow them to the state line, generally in the late night or early morning hours.

We were sitting in the yard and Joe had run into the house to get something to cool me down from my car trip there. Joe came to the door and called us in. “Brother, you know a Jonathan Daniel?”

“Yeah. Sure. I know Jon Daniel. Why?”

“Well, he’s dead.” Joe had heard a news bulletin but had no details.

It was not hard to believe, for I had been with Jonathan at a conference a few weeks earlier and knew what he was about. He was a student from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts who was involved in registering black citizens to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama. A few days earlier I had learned that Jon was in jail in that county along with a number of others. We waited to hear the national news, which carried a detailed account.

Jonathan and Richard Morrisroe, a Roman Catholic priest from Chicago, had just been released from the Lowndes County jail in Hayneville. Because of some confusion in a telephone conversation there was no one there to meet them when they and twenty-five others had been released. Jonathan, Richard, and two black students stopped at a small grocery store on the edge of the little town. Despite the fact that the majority of the proprietress’s trade was black people, she became alarmed at the students’ presence and called a special deputy named Thomas Coleman, who arrived on the scene before the four could finish their cold drinks and leave. Armed with his own shotgun, he fired as the four were leaving the premises, killing Jonathan instantly with the first shot, turning immediately upon Father Morrisroe, the pellets from the second shot leaving him mortally wounded on the gravel outside the one-room, unpainted shack which was the store. The two young black women fled in terror and were unharmed. Coleman went to the telephone and called Colonel Al Lingo, Commissioner of Public Safety in Alabama, and told him, “I've just shot two preachers. You better get on down here.”

That was the news. That was all we knew. My young friend Jonathan Daniel was dead and his friend lay mortally wounded, listed in critical condition. I sat in stunned silence. Joe snapped the television off and came over and kissed me on the head. “I'm sorry, Brother.” P.D. said nothing.

I made some phone calls to get more details and to see if there was something we should be doing. Joe and P.D. sat in a silent room, mourning with me over the death of a friend, saying little, forgetting to turn the lights on when darkness came. When I reentered the room they were speaking in whispers, like people do in a funeral parlor when there is a casket in the room. I could see them outlined against the street light which cast a beam through a crack in the Venetian blind, reflecting itself in a huge mirror and returning across the room to bring form to these two big men sitting facing each other as if playing chess.

P.D. spoke first. “Well, brother (he addressed each of us as we did each other), “What you reckon your friend Mr. Jesus thinks of all this?” I allowed that I guessed he was pretty sad about it. He stood up and turned an overhead light on, went to the kitchen and came back with some cold drinks and cheese. He spoke again as his hulking frame sank into a bigger chair. “Brother, what about that definition of Christianity you gave me that time? Let’s see if it can pass the test.”

Years before, when P.D. had his paper going, he liked to argue about religion. Most of it was satire, but I would often take it upon myself to set him straight on one theological point or another. He had long since deserted and disavowed the Methodist Church of his foster parents, had tried being a Unitarian and had taken instruction from the local rabbi and was considering declaring himself a Jew. He referred to the church as “The Easter chicken.” Each time I saw him he would ask, “And what’s the state of the Easter chicken, Preacher Will?” I knew he was trying to goad me into some kind of an argument and decided to wait him out. One day he explained.

“You know, Preacher Will, that church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.” I interrupted that white was the liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. “But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob that chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.”

“I think I see what you're driving at, P.D.”

“No, Preacher Will. You don't understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. Rave on.”

“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn't have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes siree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can't tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”

I knew he wanted to argue and I didn't want to disappoint him. “Well, P.D., the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?”

It was what he wanted me to say. “Yeah, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs.”

I told him I agreed and that it had been a long time since I would not have agreed but that that didn’t have anything to do with the Christian faith. He looked a little hurt and that was when he asked me to define the Christian faith. But he had a way of pushing one for simple answers.

“Just tell me what this Jesus cat is all about. If you would tell me what the hell the Christian faith is all about maybe I wouldn't make a jackass of myself when I’m talking about it. Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?” We were going someplace, or coming back from someplace when he said, “Let me have it. Ten words.”

I said, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” He swung his car off on the shoulder and stopped, asking me to say it again. I repeated: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”

He didn't comment on what he thought of the summary except to say, after he had counted the number of words on his fingers, “I gave you a ten word limit. If you want to try again you have two words left.” I didn’t try again but he often reminded me of what I had said that day.

Now, sitting in the presence of two of the most troubled men I have ever known, I was about to receive the most enlightening theological lesson I had ever had in my life. Not Louisiana College, Tulane, Wake Forest, or Yale University Divinity School. But sitting here in a heavily mortgaged house in Fairhope, Alabama. P.D. East and Joseph Lee Campbell as teachers. And I as pupil.

“Yeah, Brother. Let’s see if your definition of the faith can stand the test.” My calls had been to the Department of Justice, to the American Civil Liberties Union, and to a lawyer friend in Nashville. I had talked of the death of my friend as being a travesty of justice, as a complete breakdown of law and order, as a violation of Federal and State law. I had used words like redneck, backwoods, woolhat, cracker, Kluxer, ignoramus and many others. I had studied sociology, psychology, and social ethics and was speaking and thinking in those concepts. I had also studied New Testament theology at one of the finest schools in the country.

P.D. stalked me like a tiger. “Come on, Brother. Let’s talk about your definition.” At one point Joe turned on him, “Lay off, P.D. Can’t you see when somebody is upset?” But P.D. waved him off, loving me too much to leave me alone.

“Was Jonathan a bastard?”

I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.

“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine. You told me one time that everybody is a bastard. That's a pretty tough word. I know. Cause I am a bastard. A born bastard. My Mamma wasn’t married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no and not maybe, was Jonathan Daniel a bastard?”

I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.

So I said, “Yes.”

“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

That one was a lot easier. “Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”

“Okay. Let me get this straight now. I don’t want to misquote you. Jonathan Daniel was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right?” Joe the Protector was on his feet.

“P.D. that’s a sacrilege. Knock it off! Get off the kid’s back.”

P.D. ignored him, pulling his chair closer to mine, placing his huge, bony hand on my knee. “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes.

I made some feeble attempt to talk about God loving the sinner and not the sin, about judgment, justice and brotherhood of all humanity. But P.D. shook his hands in a manner of cancellation. He didn’t want to hear about that.

“You’re trying to complicate it. Now you're the one always told me about how simple it was. Just answer the question.” His examination would have done credit to Clarence Darrow.

He leaned his face closer to mine, patting my knee, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion.

“Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does he love that living bastard Thomas the most?”

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what was I crying for and what was I laughing for. Then this too became clear.

I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. Of riding the coattails of Caesar, of playing on his ballpark, by his rules and with his ball, of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, or worshiping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order, and of denying not only the faith I professed to hold but my history and my people the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting there in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands. The thought gave me a shaking chill in a non-air-conditioned room in August. I had never considered myself a liberal. I didn’t think in those terms. But that was the camp in which I had pitched my tent. Now I was not so sure.

Joe and P.D. came and stood beside me, Joe pulling me to him in sympathetic embrace, P.D. handing me his half-emptied drink. I closed the blind and sat down, taking a sip and passing it back to P.D. who in turn sipped and passed it on to Joe. And we passed it round and round until it was gone.

The lesson was over. Class dismissed. But I had one thing I must say to the teacher.

“P.D.?”

“Yeah, Brother?”

“I've got to amend the definition.”

“Okay, Brother, go ahead. You know you always had them two words left.”

“We're all bastards but you've got to be the biggest bastard of us all.”

“How's that, Brother?”

“Because, damned if you ain’t made a Christian out of me. And I’m not sure I can stand it.”

P.D. thought that was just about the funniest thing he had ever heard.

Our three-man wake for Jonathan and mourning for Thomas (funny that these should be their names—Jonathan, lover of David; Thomas, dubious of resurrection) continued, and between trips to refrigerator and bathroom my lesson continued as we talked of history, civil rights and Gospel.

At one point Joe asked what we thought the court would do with Thomas Coleman since he had already pleaded guilty, had admitted that he had killed Jonathan and mortally wounded Richard. We all agreed that he would be released, that the climate of fear was such in Alabama at the time that no white jury would convict a man for killing a Yankee agitator.

Now P.D. wanted to argue with the conversion he had led me to. I tried to point out the parallel between the Alabama court and God. Joe was only listening, and P.D. wasn’t buying.

“Look, you stupid idiot. We agree that they’re gonna turn him loose. But that ain’t the same as saying they ought to turn him loose. They ought to fry him. You know that! He killed a man. A good man.”

I agreed that the notion that a man could go to a store where a group of unarmed human beings are drinking soda pop and eating moon pies, fire a shotgun blast at one of them, tearing his lungs and heart and bowels from his body, turn on another and send lead pellets ripping through his flesh and bones, and that God would set him free was almost more than I could stand. But unless that is precisely the case then there is no gospel, there is no good news. Unless that is the truth we have only bad news, we are back with law alone.

P.D. saw that as sheer lunacy. And said so with considerable embellishment. Then, turning to Joe, he sighed, “Brother Will wants to play church! Come on, gang. Let's play church!” He motioned Joe to a chair, pulling another up beside him, folding his hands to a position of prayer. “Brother Will is the preacher. Me and you is the congregation.”

I decided to play church and began to preach. “Here’s all I'm trying to say, brothers. I’m trying to say what you brought me suddenly to see with two questions. When Thomas killed Jonathan he committed a crime against the state. When Thomas killed Jonathan he committed a crime against God. The strange, the maddening thing about this case, is that both these offended parties have rendered the same verdict not for the same reasons, not in the same way, but the verdict is the same-acquittal.”

“Will, you’re saying George Wallace is God Almighty. And George Wallace wouldn’t even make a good Devil.”

“No. George Wallace frees him to go and kill again. The other liberates him to obedience to Christ. Acquittal by law is the act of Caesar. Render unto him what is his. The state, by its very nature and definition, can do anything it wills to do—Hitler must have proved at least that much. Acquittal by resurrection takes us back to our little definition of the faith. And takes us into a freedom where it would never occur to us to kill somebody.”

The teacher wasn’t having the lesson now. “Brother, you’re just as crazy as hell! There are a bunch of lunatics out there, absolute madmen! Killers! Maybe you’ll be next. Or even worse maybe I’ll be next. Madmen have to be restrained! I say fry the son of a bitch.”

“Okay. You say they have to be restrained. Let’s talk about that. The truth is, law is not restraining them. If law is for the purpose of preventing crime, every wail of a siren calls out its failure. Every civil rights demonstration attests to the courts’ inability to provide racial justice. Every police chief who asks for a larger appropriation because of the rising crime rate is admitting his own failure. Every time a law has to be enforced, it is a failure.”

“Sure. The Thomas Colemans must be restrained. Exactly! Then where is the fruit? When will he be restrained? Certainly not by legislation and court decisions. Of those we have plenty. And in the legislative and court decisions he watches a truce being signed between his two traditional enemies, black leaders and the federal government. And that, no doubt, is necessary. But meanwhile, the rejections continue, the killings go on, the hostilities mount and intensify, to be set loose wholesale yet again on another day.

“If you want to argue, P.D., on what will work and what won’t work then let’s put it there. I’ll go to the mat with you on that.”

Joe sat tight on the chair P.D. had assigned him, clutching the rungs of the seat, staring straight at the designated preacher. P.D. did not move. We were moving into territory familiar to both of them. Joe stood up and yawned. “I’ve seen this movie, Brothers. I know about law. I’ve been divorced.” P.D. leaned backward in his chair and burped as discreetly as he could.

Conversion is at once a joyous and painful experience. If it was not the beginning of my ministry it was certainly a turning point. And it was certainly the most significant theological training I had received since we sat at our Father’s fireside and listened to him read the Bible every night.

And it was a personal lesson as well. For being pushed by P.D. East, in the presence of Joe, to see Thomas Coleman, murderer of my friend, in the light of the gospel turned me back to where I had once been, years before, a path from which I had strayed. It was the beginning of a process—the process of coming to terms with one’s own history, whatever that history might be.

I, like many another Southern liberal, had tried to deny that history, to flee from it, to so insulate myself from it in learning and action and sophistication that it would appear never to have existed. I had become a doctrinaire social activist, without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of a social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. One who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides. And I had taken sides.

Many of us who were Christians were just a little bit proud of our alienation and a little bit arrogant in our newfound liberation and assumed sophistication. We justified it in terms of the suffering, the injustices, the blatant hostilities and economic deprivations black people had had heaped upon them. There was drama and romance in the Civil Rights Movement and we who had no home at home sought that home in the black cause. Because we did not understand the nature of tragedy, we learned the latest woolhat jokes, learned to cuss Mississippi and Alabama sheriffs, learned to say “redneck” in the same venomous tones we had heard others, or ourselves, say “nigger.” We did not understand that those we so vulgarly called “redneck” were a part of the tragedy. They had been victimized one step beyond the black. They had had their head taken away by cunning, skillful and well-educated gentlemen and ladies of the gentry. And so we, my people and Joe’s and P.D.’s, picked the wrong enemy. We were not wrong in aligning ourselves with the black sufferer. But we were wrong in not directing some of our patience and energy and action to a group which also had a history of slavery.

The redneck’s slavery, called indentured servanthood, was somewhat, but only somewhat, unlike that of black slaves. He was told that if he would serve the master for five years, or seven years, he would then be free in a new and prosperous and promising land in a new world. But freedom to what, and in what? Freedom to compete in the wilderness with wealthy landholders with black labor, to fight a war to defend that system as well as his own peonage, to come back home and watch the aristocrat try to meet the basic needs of those he had formerly owned while he had no assistance at all. No wonder he had to find a Jonah.

I thought of those things as I thought of Thomas Coleman, and as I reviewed my ministry and considered my conversion.

My ministry had become one of law, not of grace. While I had tried to keep in mind all along that the central theme of the triumph of grace over law was clear in the New Testament, I had come to act as if I didn't believe it. I knew that while St. Paul stopped short of a rigid antinomian position, a complete disregard for law, he did make it clear that to abide in grace was more radical than to abide by law. I had not quite accepted that freedom before, marching instead under the banner and umbrella of social science and legislation, Caesar and politics, a litigious gospel which is no gospel at all.

Ten years after our theological evening, almost to the day, I chanced to be in Montgomery in the company of two women whose cousin had been the owner and operator of the store where Jonathan was killed. I asked them to drive me to Hayneville where Thomas, who had been acquitted by the Alabama court as we had anticipated, lived. I did not succeed in finding Thomas. But in front of the little store I picked up a small rock and dropped it in my pocket. I did not select it and did not examine it at the time, simply reaching down and picking it up from among the thousands of pebbles on the parking area. When I looked at it later it so closely resembled a miniature human skull that not one person who saw it failed to see what I saw in it. A portion of the lower face was missing, the indentation a faded red. I sent the rock to Brother Patrick Hart, secretary to another Thomas, Thomas Merton, and asked him to toss it upon the ground near an outdoor chapel which had been erected as a memorial to Jonathan in the deep and remote woods of the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky.

Will Campbell was a Tennessee farmer, director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, publisher of Katallagete, a civil rights leader, and minister to all regardless of race, creed, or KKK affiliation when this article first appeared in the August 1977 edition of Sojourners. This personal story by him is an edited excerpt from his book Brother to a Dragonfly.The book describes the life of his brother Joe, their growing up together in the south, and Joe’s eventual tragic death. Will Campbell died in Nashville, Tenn., on June 3, 2013.

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