By Bob Allen
Sixty years after he was forced out of a job for challenging racial segregation on campus, the University of Mississippi is naming a plaza for the late Will Campbell, a renegade Baptist minister and author active in the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s.
On Sept. 11 the university in Oxford, Miss., honored Campbell posthumously by naming a gathering place near the chapel The Rev. Will Davis Campbell Plaza. Campbell, a self-described “bootleg preacher,” served as religious life director at Ole Miss from 1954 until 1956, when his support for racial integration drew hostility, including death threats.
Campbell, who died in 2013 at age 88, went on to work as a field officer for the National Council of Churches, a job that put him on the front lines of the civil rights movement. He helped escort nine African-American students through mobs opposed to the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., and was the only white minister invited by Martin Luther King Jr. to attend the organizational meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
At the same time, he befriended integration opponents that he called “the Kluxers,” earning him the designation of chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan. “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ’em all,” he used to say.
“He taught us how to love people who were different from us and people who disagreed with us,” university Chancellor Dan Jones said in comments quoted by the Oxford Citizen.
“I believe he would be pleased that his name will be associated with a plaza outside this chapel, rather than something inside this chapel,” Jones said, noting that it was Campbell’s critique of the institutional church that earned him the nickname “preacher without a steeple.”