Interview with Reverend Will Campbell
Interview with Reverend Will Campbell


Production Team: B

Interview Date: November 3, 1985

Camera Rolls: 318-320
Sound Rolls: 1310

Interview gathered as part of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with Reverend Will Campbell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.

INTERVIEW
QUESTION 1
INTERVIEWER:

OK, REVEREND CAMPBELL, I'D LIKE TO TALK FIRST ABOUT THE SOUTH AND IN PARTICULAR NASHVILLE AND THE TWO CHURCHES: THE BLACK CHURCH AND THE WHITE CHURCH, AND WHERE THEY WERE AT SAY IN 1960, BETWEEN FIFTIES AND SIXTIES. JUST GIVE ME AN IDENTITY FOR THE SOUTH AT THAT TIME.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Well, of course, the churches were like the rest of society, rigidly segregated so that you had a First Baptist Church, which was white, on Broadway. Then you had a First Baptist Church, which is now called the First Baptist Capitol Hill, which was black—hundred years earlier, they had been one. And one of the great tragedies, I think, for the, for the institutional church was that, that they did split following the Civil War, they were one church then. And the Pastor of the First Baptist Church in 1960, Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, First Baptist Church of Capitol Hill, which was the black church, just a few blocks from the white First Baptist Church—both of them were in a massive building campaign so the Pastor Reverend Smith wrote to the Pastor of the white church and said, look, it hasn't been that long ago by God's time, a hundred years, that we were one church. Now we find ourselves a few blocks apart we're both in a massive building campaign. Why don't we at least talk in terms of building one church? And the response was our people feel there are too few good churches in downtown Nashville, not too many—very evasive things. So the structured church was, there was this breach that black people didn't go to church with white people and vice versa.

QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

OK, NOW IN 1960, WHEN THE SIT-INS BEGIN AND THE PROTEST CAMPAIGN IN NASHVILLE BEGINS, HOW DOES THAT PLAY INTO THE MINDS OF PEOPLE IN TERMS OF HOW THEY'RE DOING WITH EACH OTHER AND JUST THE IDEA OF YOU KNOW THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH AND, AND PEOPLE NOT BEING ABLE TO REALLY COME TO GRIPS WITH ONE ANOTHER. HOW IS THE CHURCHES PLAYING INTO THAT, WITH VANDERBILT AS A MAJOR INSTITUTION AT THAT TIME.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Yeah, well of course, the white established structured church tried very hard not to deal with it at all, just simply ignore it.

QUESTION 3
INTERVIEWER:

YOU HAVE TO GIVE ME WHAT ALL THOSE THINGS ARE.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

OK, let's go back then again and I'm not sure of what you're asking me to talk about here [overlap] Now [overlap], are you going to ask a question or do you just want me to start talking?

QUESTION 4
INTERVIEWER:

I'LL ASK A QUESTION. TALKING ABOUT VANDERBILT AND BRING IN JIM LAWSON AND HIM BEING EXPELLED AND THE ROLE VANDERBILT WAS PLAYING AS A, AS A PART OF THAT EFFECT ON...

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Yeah, OK. James Lawson was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, was, I believe, the first black student. He was more active perhaps in the training and preparing the young people in Nashville for the sit-in movement because he had been in prison himself during the Korean War. He was a C.O. resister, had refused to register for the draft and had been sent to federal prison because of that. Vanderbilt took the position when the sit-ins began—and he was charged by the city with criminal anarchy—that they were not expelling him because of his involvement in the freedom movement, or the sit-in movement, but because he wa—had violated a state statute. Now keep in mind that he had not been convicted of this when he was expelled. He was simply charged with this, arrested and thrown in prison, but he was expelled. The black church was virtually unanimously for him. The white churches, those who even would bother to discuss it among themselves, were almost unanimously against it. Now that is not to say that there were not individuals within the white church both at Vanderbilt University and in the structured church, the steeples as I call them, there were individuals, but you always have to distinguish between individuals and institutions. Vanderbilt, as an institution, was in my judgment totally irresponsible, almost criminal in their actions toward James Lawson. Individuals within that faculty and within the Vanderbilt community at large, many individuals, were outspoken in be—on behalf of James Lawson, were very much in sympathy with him. But institutions are so powerful and so, in my judgment, so evil, that it made no difference, you know, these faculty people could say—and the medical student faculty, almost all of them, threatened to resign. The divinity faculty did on one occasion, almost all of them resigned. But the institution goes pell-mell on its way and says what…you know, this guy is a threat to the institution. And if something becomes a threat to the institution, then that institution is just going to push it out of its way, which is precisely what happened. He was expelled and the institution survived and went on.

QUESTION 5
INTERVIEWER:

NOW IN 1960 PEOPLE SAY THAT NASHVILLE WAS A PRETTY PROGRESSIVE CITY, ESPECIALLY IN TERMS OF RACE THAT THEY HAD CITY EMPLOYEES WHO WERE BLACK. THERE WERE MOVES, PEOPLE WERE SAYING THERE WERE MOVES—MOVEMENT IN THE CITY TO DEAL WITH THE RACE ISSUE, AND THAT THIS WAS NOT THEN—THE PROTEST MOVEMENT WAS JUST TOO, WASN'T TIME, IT WAS LIKE PUSHING THEM TOO FAST. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT, AND THE FEELINGS OF THE COMMUNITY TOWARDS, ABOUT THAT WHOLE…

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

I think in 1960, Nashville was a progressive city, but so was Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 when Governor Faubus called out the troops to stop this horrendous onslaught of nine black children coming to Central High School. So was New Orleans, where you had serious riots the same year and the following year, and it took marshals to escort one child through the lines and so on. But when you're, when you're, when you say progressive, I think it reflected a mood with within a large group of individuals, but when those individuals go up against structures and institutions and—well, let's take segregation as an institutionalized reality in Nashville—then those individuals made little or no difference. So, if you came and talked to X number of white and black in, in Nashville in 1960, or the late 5O's, you might well go away saying, well, this city can do anything it wants to because it's, it has an enlightened citizenry, but, but these evil structures are so institutionalized and so demonic and so difficult to deal with that these quote "enlightened" individuals were relatively powerless.

QUESTION 6
INTERVIEWER:

OK NOW, GOING, GETTING INTO THE MOVEMENT AND SAY LOOBY'S HOUSE, LOOBY'S HOUSE IS BOMBED. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CITY AT THAT POINT? WHAT, HOW DID PEOPLE RESPOND?

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Mr. Z. Alexander Looby, who was a great man, a black attorney, conservative politically, a Lincoln Republican of many years, no one could accuse him of being a wild eyed radical politically. And when his house was bombed or dynamited, I think it, it solidified especially the black community, and it enraged a segment of the white community in a fashion that nothing else had. When you had the hundred or hundreds of black students coming down and sitting in at the Woolworth stores and so on, all of the five and dime stores, and department stores, that was one thing, because students are supposed to be irresponsible, you know, and wild eyed, and so you just kind of shrug that off. And if the police get a little rough, you know, and over zealous and throwing—and pack thirty into a paddy wagon that's designed for eight—well, after all, you know, they're just, they're students. But this elderly man who had been a citizen, a lawyer, a councilman and so on, over the years, and when his house is in a rubble, this did outrage a lot of people. Now, I would have to acknowledge, much as I would like to say, being afflicted with this incurable skin disease called lightness, that it solidified the white community to go out and join the marches—it did not. But there was the the mass march to City Hall, and there was a white Mayor who came out there and who with considerable prodding from that brilliant and beautiful leader named Diane Nash, who kept pushing him—but, Mr. Mayor, you are our Mayor, sir, do you think that segregation is morally defendable? And he eventually had to say, I do not. Now that, in my judgment, was the turning point. That encounter was a turning point. So you had a white Mayor of a leading city reflecting on this alleged progressive characteristic of the city. And once he says this and then you have a leading black citizen with his house dynamited, now it goes back to the dynamiting, so that whoever set off that dynamite or bomb blast, did more to integrate the lunch counters and the department stores in Nashville, I think, than all the sit-ins combined

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

[overlap] THAT IS A CAMERA ROLL OUT. WE ARE NOW ON A FRESH ROLL CAMERA ROLL NUMBER 319, 319[overlap]

QUESTION 7
INTERVIEWER:

TELL ME ABOUT THAT LETTER WITH JIM LAWSON AND HIS ATTEMPTS TO, HE WAS GOING TO RESIGN RATHER THAN LETTING THEM EXPEL HIM.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Well, the pressures had been mounting, of course, for days and Jim Lawson, being a considerate and a gentle person basically, agreed to withdraw voluntarily from Vanderbilt University, from the divinity school, called me and asked me to come over to go over the letter he had prepared the night before—he and his wife, who had been my secretary, Dorothy Wood—and my position was, no, you don't do that. You don't let them off the hook, that you're going to go, you're going to have to leave Jim, but make them kick you out so that they and the world will know what this, where this institution stands and what it's up to, which is what he did then. When he went over to the meeting that had been convened for the purpose of announcing that Mr. Lawson had agreed to withdraw and for the sake of harmony and peace in the Vanderbilt fellowship here. And when Jim said, I'm not withdrawing, of course, there was a great deal of hostility and the Dean of [unintelligible]asked all outsiders to leave and so the press people started leaving and then he looked at me and said, this is a family matter. And, so I, being a gentleman, gentleman too, started to leave, and Jim and some of the other white students caught my jacket and said to the Dean, he is family, which I considered that I was family. I had been very much involved in the entire situation because of the relationship of his wife being my secretary and working with me, and he being a friend also, but had he resigned on his own. I think it would have been a totally different, different picture that the world would have got of what was going on in Nashville, because they would have shrugged it off and said, now everybody's happy, there's no, but in reality this—there might have been a little smooth scar healed over, but underneath it was still seething cauldron of infection which had to erupt, had to erupt sometime, and it might as well have been then, and there

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

300 FEET REMAINING ON CAMERA ROLL 319.

QUESTION 8
INTERVIEWER:

THAT EPISODE ON THE STEPS, ON THE STEPS OF THE STATEHOUSE AND NOT BEING AN END OR BEGINNING, TALK TO ME ABOUT THAT.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Yes, when, when Diane Nash, later Diane Bevel, had the confrontation with Mayor West, and for the first time, the Mayor of this city went on record as saying that merchants cannot morally justify taking people's money, but giving them unequal service in terms of hiring, of restroom facilities, of eating facilities, drinking fountains and so on. This was the first crack in the frozen pond of racial segregation in this city. It did not mean the melting of the ice when everything was over, but it was a starting point, and so here the Mayor has said this. Now, before anything really was was accomplished, there had to be the Easter boycott of the stores, the virtual drying up of the downtown area and I think for the first time the merchants and the city officials realized that we were talking more than just the right to a hamburger and a cup of coffee at the five-and-ten-cent store. That we are talking about employment, we're talking about fairness in general, and treating people as human beings, and really what we're talking about, and this was the most frightening of all, that we were talking about a redistribution of America's wealth. Just as when the, the quote, make a big jump here from Nashville to the national church scene, when James Forman walked into Riverside Church in New York and read the manifesto, talking about reparation for misdeeds of white churches, and demanding of white churches that they give fifty million dollars or whatever, of their vast wealth, for the first time the national scene saw that what we're talking about is more than a cup of coffee and a hamburger. I think you, I gave you more than you asked for, but—[overlap]

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

200 FEET LEFT [overlap] 200 FEET LEFT ON CAMERA ROLL 319

QUESTION 9
INTERVIEWER:

OK, WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT THEM TURNING BACK AT THAT POINT AND BRING JOHN SEIGENTHALER'S NAME INTO YOUR…

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Well, certainly it was mixed. John Seigenthaler, who had been the editor of the local newspaper, was at that—and a journalist with the Nashville Tennessean—was at that time working with Attorney General Kennedy, as I recall, and asked me if I had enough influence to get the movement to turn back when Bull Connor in Birmingham had, of course, bought the freedom riders back to the county line and so on. And it was obvious that the Nashville kids, as we called them, were going to continue this, and my feelings were mixed. Number one having been born and reared in this city and knowing the climate in the white community there, I really believed they would be killed. And so I didn't want people like John Lewis and Diane Nash dying at the hands of quote "my people" in Mississippi. On the other hand, I knew that in terms of the long range goals of the movement, and the fierce determination and dedication of those youngsters at the time, you know, they were like eighteen, nineteen years old. I knew they were going to do it, and there was, there was nothing I could do but, but weep for what I was certain was going to happen, and for the tragedy even if it didn't happen, that the notion that a group of people can't ride through my state in a Greyhound bus is rather overwhelming.

QUESTION 10
INTERVIEWER:

OK, YOU USED THAT TERM IN YOUR BOOK OF LUNESEAN REALITY IN THAT WHEN YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT THE WILLIE MCGEE EXECUTION. I'D LIKE YOU TO VIEW IN THAT SAME FRAME OF MIND, TALK ABOUT MONTGOMERY WHEN YOU CAME IN TO MEET, TO SEE JOHN SEIGENTHALER IN THE HOSPITAL, WHAT YOU ENCOUNTERED THERE.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Was that, wasn't that Mothers Day?

QUESTION 11
INTERVIEWER:

NO THIS WAS AFTER, THIS WAS THE, LIKE THE, AROUND THE 26th OF MAY, THIS WAS AFTER THE MONTGOMERY AMBUSH.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

I remember that, yeah, [overlap] OK, OK. When the freedom riders reached Montgomery, and apparently the arrangement had been made that there would be no police protection for X number of minutes, five minutes or whatever, so that a mob was set loose to do what they will. And John Seigenthaler was there as a personal representative of the President and two young women were trying to get into a cab and were being turned away and were being roughed up and John went over and said, "I am a personal representative of the President." And that's the last thing he remembered saying for a long time because someone caught him over the back of the head with a steel pipe and he lay in the sun there for a long time. And I was not present, I was not there at the time, and I, a friend of mine—a young attorney here—George Baird and I, chartered a little plane the next morning, Sunday morning. And John, we thought he was in critical condition, of course they didn't know how seriously he was hurt, but he was in the hospital there. He used to kid me when I was working for the National Council of Churches he'd say, "Oh, here comes the guy who represents forty million Protestants," and of course we didn't represent anybody, you know. So I walked into the room and I said in his hospital room, and the priest was on his way out, and I thought oh lord, is he gone and they're doing unction on John Seigenthaler? And I said, "John, I'm here representing forty million Protestants," and he threw me the bottle of holy water and he said, "Well here, I think one of your forty million damned near killed me yesterday down at that bus station." And I knew John was going to be OK.

QUESTION 12
INTERVIEWER:

TALK TO ME ABOUT DRIVING THROUGH THE CITY AND LISTENING IN ON SERMONS.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

And driving around after—

QUESTION 13
INTERVIEWER:

START AGAIN PLEASE.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Where, where do you want me to start?

QUESTION 14
INTERVIEWER:

WHY DON'T YOU START ABOUT, DRIVING THROUGH, AND LISTENING TO SERMONS AND WHAT YOU WOULD HEAR AND WHAT IT MEANT TO YOU.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Well, after the visit with, with John I wanted to go and see the students in various hospitals. There was a black St. Jude's, I believe was the name of the Catholic operated hospital on the edge of town where the freedom riders had been taken, black and white. And some of them were in critical condition and I went to visit them and, course I was lost and scared and just driving at times, aimlessly around the city, at 11 o'clock on Sunday morning…and here was a city that had been, the day before, in utter chaos. And people were being clubbed and beaten and the city was in turmoil, and not one preacher, and I kept moving the knob and listening to this sermon and that one, over the hour or so time there, and you might as well have been on a different planet, you know, that there was no mention of this in sermons, no prayer for forgiveness, to say nothing of deliverance. And so that this, this sharp cleavage between what was happening in the black churches of Montgomery where mass meetings were going on every night and, I am certain that if a black preacher had been on the radio that day there would have been mention of this, both in prayer, in praise, in homily, and in psalm. But the white church—there was no mention of this, because it is controversial, and there's one thing sacred in any institution and that's harmony.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

THAT WAS A ROLL, CAMERA ROLLOUT ON CAMERA ROLL 319, WE ARE NOW GOING TO CAMERA ROLL 320.

QUESTION 15
INTERVIEWER:

OK, IF YOU COULD EXPLAIN TO ORLANDO FIRST OF ALL, HOW YOU FIRST HEARD ABOUT THE MURDER OF EMMETT TILL AND WHAT YOUR OWN PERSONAL REACTION WAS, WHAT THAT MEANT TO YOU.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

Well, I heard about it on the, in the newspapers [overlap]. OK, I've got it, yes, Well, I read of the murder of a young black child really, fifteen years old, named Emmett Till in the newspapers, and of course on the radio. And I was Director of Religious Life at the time at the University of Mississippi, and I knew that this man would never, whoever had committed this, would never be convicted. And there was a long drawn out trial, and in all fairness to the judge in the case, I watched some of it in the courtroom, I think he did the best he could, but the two men who were charged with this murder were at the time heroes. Now the strange part of it is, as soon as the trial was over, and Mr. William Bradley Hewitt [sic, author of the article was William Bradford Huie] wrote a story for magazine showing the check that he had made out to them to tell the real story, where they said, yeah, we took him down there and you know, we beat him and then, then killed him and threw him in the river, Tallahatchie River, and so on. Those people were nobodies after that. They were disgraced, which is a strange conflict and dichotomy in southern society that while they were being accused of this crime, we have to rally to their defense and take up money, and hire lawyers, and all the rest. But then when it's over, look, why did you have to disgrace us like that, now get out of town, we don't really want to see you again.

QUESTION 16
INTERVIEWER:

WHAT WAS, DO YOU HAVE A SENSE OF WHAT THE REACTION, IF ANY, FROM WHITE MISSISSIPPIANS IN GENERAL WAS TO THE NEWS OF THAT, FIRST OF THE LYNCHING AND THEN OF THE TRIAL AND THE VERDICT.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

It's very difficult to believe that in 1955 intelligent, civilized, and often sophisticated people would say, well, that didn't really happen, that the NAACP, which was considered the radicals at the time had this boy killed and thrown in the river to embarrass white Mississippi, or to raise money and so on. All kinds of stories, or that wasn't really his body, his mother discredited, that they—some black undertaker from Chicago—brought a bum down here who had died of a drug overdose on the streets and threw it in the river and Emmett Till's back in Chicago laughing at us. And, and these things, which is today impossible—even though I lived through it and experienced it—to believe that those things were being seriously said and reported in allegedly responsible organs of the media, but it happened.

QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

GOOD.

Rev. Will D. Campbell:

All right.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

THIS WILL BE ROOM TONE.