Brother Will Campbell loved Duncan Gray Jr.
Jim Dees and myself drove early one morning some years ago from Oxford to Mt. Juliet, Tennessee to visit with Will Campbell, the author and Baptist minister.
The visit was more a privilege than a trip, is how Dees described it.
This was long before Campbell passed in 2013, yet he was already slow in step and paced with his words, though what he said was sharp as ever.
Campbell had been the director of religious life at Ole Miss in 1954 but he quit in 1956 because of death threats and harassment since he supported integration of Mississippi’s flagship university.
We met with Campbell in the cabin on his small farm, the place where he wrote most of his books including the popular “Brother to a Dragonfly.” I remember Dees hinting that I not talk too much so we could listen more.
Campbell told us about mutual disdain with the musician, Charlie Daniels, who lived nearby in Mt. Juliet. Known for his more conservative views, Campbell said, “Charlie doesn’t think too much of me.”
Campbell, who asked to be called “Brother Will,” told us about what happened at Ole Miss during his brief tenure as religious life director.
“They weren’t ready for me,” he said. “I told (those against integration) the Bible says this University is for all people. They told me they were going to kill me.”
Ole Miss wasn’t integrated until 1962, six years after Campbell departed. The instigators hadn’t changed a bit, as they swarmed the campus from throughout the state of Mississippi, rioting to the point of national disaster and even death.
Mississippi had but few heroes in those tragic days, and one was Oxford’s beloved Duncan Gray Jr., who at that time was rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in town. Gray, of course, was a strong voice of reason in the horrible conflict. He tried to stop rioters, and he preached the wrongness of such hatred and discrimination.
Campbell and Gray had a lot in common, and that’s where this story intersects with this week’s passing of Duncan Gray Jr. Campbell’s 1997 book, “And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma,” used Gray’s story as a storyline to reveal and discuss the contradictions between faith and racism, particularly in the Deep South.
Campbell saw in Gray, I think, a reflection of himself in many ways. Both were ministers with the best of intentions and both, particularly early in their careers, were ostracized for being so outspoken and ahead of their time against segregation.
They knew it was wrong, in contrast with Christian principles, and they weren’t afraid to say so. And, that they both spent time at Ole Miss during such crucial, historical moments created even more kinship and respect.
“He finished what I couldn’t,” Campbell said, speaking of Gray. “He is quite a man.”
In other words, Campbell started the conversation on campus before he was run off and Gray finished it with an exclamation point six years later when Meredith was enrolled at Ole Miss and progress finally came, albeit at a high price.
The trip is one Jim Dees and I will never forget. Most memorable of all, though, is that someone so accomplished and insightful as Brother Will Campbell held Duncan Gray Jr. in such high regard.
That was really saying something.
David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford EAGLE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.