“Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well”

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Will Campbell, the Southern Baptist preacher who was once fired from his chaplaincy at the University of Mississippi for playing ping pong with a black employee and who was the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, died this week at the age of 88. During his lifetime, he drank whiskey with klansmen and moonshine with nuns and infuriated people on the left and the right by insisting that God called Christians to love everyone – bigot and anti-racist alike. Here’s how the civil rights champion (and now congressman) John Lewis remembered Campbell during a February, 1961 discussion of strategy:

I listened to the debate that night. I considered everything that was said. And I heard nothing fundamental enough to shift the sureness I felt inside about what we were doing. I did not have a shred of doubt about what our next step should be. “We’re gonna march,” I said, when Will Campbell asked my opinion.

He turned away and went on with the discussion. Someone else asked what I thought about something that was said, and my answer was the same. “We’re gonna march,” I said, as simply and softly as before. At that point, Campbell lost his temper with me.

“John,” he said, “you’re agreeing with everything everyone in this room is saying. But all you say is, ‘We’re gonna march.’ There’s very apt to be some serious violence if there’s another demonstration,” he continued. “You agree with that, and still you say, ‘We’re gonna march.” What it comes down to,” he went on, “is that this is just a matter of pride with you. This is about your own stubbornness, your own sin.”

The room was absolutely silent. Everyone turned to me. I looked straight at Will. “Okay,” I said. “I’m a sinner.” The room remained still. “But,” I added, “we’re gonna march.” And that was that.

 

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