Civil Rights Era: The Mark Pinsky interview on putting ghosts to rest

Cover Mark Pinsky Met Her on the MountainMARK PINSKY isn’t laughing. And, this is a writer who is famous for his humor. He ranks as one of the nation’s most creative journalists in covering religion—and is the author of two fun books for the whole family: The Gospel According to Disney and The Gospel according to The Simpsons.

Now, however, Mark is turning to the True Crime genre for a gripping story of murder and corruption that springs from his own life. In the book, Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan, Mark returns to his roots as a young journalist in North Carolina in 1970.

Most top journalists at the zenith of their careers find themselves still haunted by a few stories they encountered that remained unresolved. Writing as the Editor of ReadTheSpirit with 40 years of journalism behind me, at this point, I agree with Mark: These memories of cold cases spark in us the kind of yearning you’ve seen in television dramas when veteran detectives remember cold cases they were never able to lay to rest. Journalists feel the same lingering concern.

Here’s what is especially timely about Mark’s return to his own cold case after 40 years:

The horrific murder he re-investigates (and seems to solve in this new book) revives the life of a popular, young, VISTA-anti-poverty worker whose body was found in the trunk of a car along an unpaved logging road in the mountains. To place this in historic context: Nancy Morgan’s brutal murder came two years after the assassinaton of Martin Luther King Jr. The year Nancy Morgan was killed opened with the trial of the Chicago Seven, young white and black activists whose convictions in 1970 wouldn’t be reversed by an appeals court until two years later. While incidents of civil rights-related violence popped up all over the U.S. in 1970, Americans’ fears still focused on the South. James Dickey’s gripping novel, Deliverance, hit bookstores in 1970 and would become a major movie in 1972.

As Pinsky’s investigation shows, Nancy Morgan’s murder involved the kind of deeply entrenched, small-town political networks that had become so tragically corrupt in many communities across the South. Deliverance was set in an isolated wilderness area in northern Georgia; Nancy Morgan’s murder was in mountainous Madison County, which borders on Tennessee in the far-western section of North Carolina where that state touches the northern tip of Georgia.

MARTIN LUTHER KING WEEK: Realizing His Dreams

At ReadTheSpirit, we selected this author interview with Mark Pinsky to appear in this special week of remembering Dr. King’s teachings. As 2014 opens, we are hearing reports of another national wave of layoffs at newspapers and magazines. As veteran journalists leave the long-time resources of their once-powerful publications, we hope that new forms of journalism will arise and continue to pursue important stories, involving justice for the vulnerable—as Mark Pinsky has done in this case. As a reader, you can support this effort by buying a copy of Mark’s book from Amazon (click on the cover above) and by reading the profiles in our own Interfaith Peacemakers Month series.

Bono and the band U2 wrote one of the most eloquent hymns of hope for Dr. King’s legacy, from which we borrow our front-page headline this week:
Sleep
Sleep tonight
And may your dreams
Be realized.
If the thundercloud
Passes rain
So let it rain
Rain down on him.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MARK PINSKY ON …
‘MET HER ON THE MOUNTAIN’

Mark Pinsky with some of his research materials for "Met Her on the Mountain" (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Mark Pinsky with some of his research materials for “Met Her on the Mountain” (Photo courtesy of the author.)

DAVID: You open this page-turner of a book with two lines from the American folk song Tom Dooley, which is loosely based on a 19th-century murder in North Carolina. The lines are: “I met her on the mountain, There I took her life.” This book taps deeply into our American anxiety about evil lurking in remote Southern towns.

MARK: It’s true that we are connecting with a long tradition that, in music, sometimes is called a “murder ballad.” That includes Tom Dooley and so many other songs like Pretty Polly, Banks of the Ohio and so many others.

DAVID: You and I both were part of the wave of young journalists in the 1970s who headed into the South, particularly into the Appalachian region, to write about communities that had been largely isolated from mainstream American culture. There was a great deal of injustice to write about both coming from these communities—like racism—and being forced upon these communities—like destructive mining. While you were in North Carolina as a reporter, I was over in eastern Kentucky. This really was a time in which the divisions between “insiders” and “outsiders” still were quite turbulent.

MARK: Yes, as a journalist, I was very much aware of the cultural insularity and the position of outsiders in those areas. There was a long history of outsiders coming in, claiming that they wanted to help—but doing more harm than good. Some of the missionaries who went into the mountains came with what they thought of as aid—but their aid was accompanied by what felt like disdain and condemnation for people living there. Even as the culture from this region became popular—like the music of the mountains—it didn’t benefit many people there. This particular region of North Carolina in my book was known for its musicians and a lot of people came from the outside, learned from the musicians—and went back home and profited in their own careers from the traditional musicians’ work.

DAVID: Right. I was in eastern Kentucky at a time when a lot of people where cruising through the mountains picking up “folk art” for pennies and reselling it at a profit. Remember that 1976 was the bicentennial and everyone seemed eager to grab hold of a bit of the mountains, as we entered the 1970s.

MARK: We have to remember as journalists: We always will be outsiders in that region, even if we lived and worked there for a time as reporters. Honestly, I would have preferred it if a regional author had written the true-crime book on Nancy Morgan at some point over the years. But, now that more than 40 years have passed and no one has written her story—I just felt it was my responsibility to finally tell her story.

And, it wasn’t as though I suddenly drove back there and wrote this book. I had been visiting that region over a 20-year period, getting to know people as I worked on this research. Many people were very helpful and encouraged this project.  I have friends who live there. I’ll always be an outsider, it’s true, but this book is something I’ve been thinking about and working on for many, many years.

What inspired Nancy Morgan?

DAVID: Describe Nancy a little bit. I don’t want to confuse readers. Nancy wasn’t a crusading activist. She wasn’t like a hero in a John Grisham novel who suddenly found herself locked in an angry feud with evil forces. She was a well-meaning and apparently well-liked VISTA worker helping poor families.

MARK: Yes, she was widely liked, but not universally. The people who worked most closely with her did love her and they developed a loyalty to her. But she did butt heads with some leaders in the county. Remember that in this region there was a general suspicion and dislike for people who arrived through this kind of program. VISTA workers were seen, by some, as the latest in a 200-year-long parade of outsiders arriving to change people’s lives.

A lot of American women who today are in their 60s would recognize Nancy’s story. Her life tracked the kinds of influences that shaped many lives in that era. She was raised in a middle-class home—in a military home with a father who served in the Air Force. She had a fairly stable, middle-class suburban life. She didn’t think too much about what she wanted to do in life, but then the civil rights movement and Vietnam War unfolded. She saw the series of assassinations that we all remember at that time. You can see in her letters that she changed from a sheltered suburban kid into this young woman with a rising social conscience. She came to oppose the Vietnam War. She changed her major in college to social welfare, which was like a social-work course of study today.

She decided that, before going on to graduate school, she would try working with VISTA and she wanted to help people. She was a spiritual searcher, not someone who was locked into one particular religious doctrine. She attended various churches looking for a place she felt was consistent with her political consciousness. But she also was inspired by Catherine Marshall’s novel, Christy, the story of a young woman who moves into the mountains to teach at a Quaker mission school. There are parallels with Nancy’s experience, although Christy is set much earlier. And, it was a combination of those influences that brought Nancy to the southern Appalachians in North Carolina.

DAVID: In our interview, I’m not going to spoil the book by asking too many questions that will reveal what happened to Nancy. The book is less than 300 pages and is a gripping “read.” I don’t want to give away too much. But I will say this: The reason her murder wasn’t solved had to do with this deep chasm between insiders and outsiders. No one in the region was willing to really go after a suspect who was among the inside circle of power brokers in that county.

MARK: That’s right, the insider-outsider division is an important part of this story. You have to remember that this is a beautiful part of the country, so people have moved into this region. Outsiders keep coming. Well, in an unsolved case like this, opinions become deeply divided. The outsider view is: This was such a horrible crime that only a local person could have done it. The insider view among people whose families have lived there for generations is: This was such a horrible crime that it had to have been committed by outsiders.

DAVID: The assumptions are mirror opposites. But, as we read your book, you seem pretty sure that you’ve solved the case.

MARK: I would describe my certainty as “80 percent sure.” I am persuaded that I have identified the figure who was responsible for what happened to Nancy. This was a man who, at that time in that area, was able to act with virtual impunity. He had a record of assault, but he managed to avoid prison.

DAVID: The irony is that he wasn’t convicted of Nancy’s murder, but you found that he is in prison.

MARK: Yes, he is effectively serving a life sentence for poisoning his own daughter, so he’s not free and he’s not going anywhere. But, of course, he was never charged with Nancy’s murder.

DAVID: As we close this interview, I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that this region of North Carolina, today, is out for your blood, Mark. In fact, you wrote a note in your Mark Pinsky website some weeks ago about a warm reception you received down there. You appeared at a number of events to share the book with folks in that part of the country. After one appearance, you wrote: “In Hot Springs, near where Nancy Morgan’s body was found … we had our best turnout: 60 people for a reading-and-signing benefit for the county library. Most were post-1960s ‘newcomers,’ but we had a good representation of older natives, too. … Good discussion following.”

MARK: When I went to these events, I was unsure of the reception I would receive. From all my visits over the years, I have some friends who live there and I knew they would be sympathetic. And it turned out to be a very good experience. In one of the audiences was the first VISTA worker assigned to Madison County in 43 years. She works with adolescent girls to provide educational enrichment programs. So, VISTA is returning to the region. People were very very interested in the book and they asked a lot of good questions.

DAVID: And I’m going to recommend the book to our readers, as well.

Care to Read More?

INTERFAITH PEACEMAKERS MONTH: Working with international peacemaker Daniel Buttry and guest writers, we are publishing 31 stories about 31 men and women who risked crossing boundaries to make peace. If you are intrigued by Mark Pinsky’s work, then you will enjoy these inspiring stories of Interfaith Peacemakers.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsPeacemaking

King, the March, the Dream: PBS debuts must-see ‘March’ (and more)

The 1963 March on Washington DC with Martin Luther King on the Mall photo from NARATHE PBS NETWORK is offering terrific opportunities to reflect on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the 1963 March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

FIRST—BE SURE TO TUNE IN: PBS provides this interactive web page to help viewers sort out local listings. Remember that PBS showtimes may vary widely. Focus on the evening of Tuesday, August 27, the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Most PBS stations will air an hour-long White House Concert featuring Natalie Cole, Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson, Seal, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Howard University Choir. The crescendo of that evening on most PBS stations is a new hour-long documentary—The March.

REVIEW of The March
by Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm

Dr Martin Luther King Jr preparing for 1963 March on Washington photo from NARAThe March, narrated by Denzel Washington, includes powerful scenes: Certainly, King himself, plus a wide array of men and women involved in the March. Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Diahann Carroll were among the famous media figures who took part on that summer day in 1963. So, there are many celebrities who help to tell this dramatic story.

Having reviewed The March before its broadcast, ReadTheSpirit can highly recommend the documentary. Producers of the film include such top names as Robert Redford and Harry Belafonte’s daughter Gina Belafonte. With such steady hands behind the film, The March does not make the mistake of turning this 1963 milestone into a nostalgic snapshot of pop stars. Viewers who know their civil rights history will be pleased to see A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979)—”universally recognized as the dean of the civil rights movement”—introduced as a part of this epic story. We also meet Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) as a key—and, as it turned out, a controversial—figure in this phase of the civil rights movement. As the story unfolds, we also are reminded of the strong challenge to the Kennedy administration that this march represented.

In other words, the story is accurately—and movingly—told.

King first appears in the film’s opening sequence—as we see footage of various buses and other vehicles on the move toward Washington. We sense the excitement of the people who dared to gather. In these opening moments, King appears on screen explaining how difficult it was to tell his daughter that she could not go to play in an amusement park that she heard other children were planning to visit. “To attempt to explain a system like the unjust and evil system of segregation to a 6 year old child is a very difficult thing,” King says.

Of course, that is the human level on which millions of Americans began to truly understand the evils of segregation. Americans saw bigots attacking innocent men, women and young people with clubs, dogs and fire hoses. The nightly TV news broadcast in millions of American living rooms showed these horrific scenes, as veteran TV correspondent Roger Mudd explains in The March. Watching violence unleashed on men, women and even on children helped to turn the tide toward civil rights.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as they performed at the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King Photo from NARAAs the film unfolds—yes, we do get to see clips of Joan Baez’s stirring songs, both solo and with Bob Dylan. Yes, we do see Harry Belafonte working his organizational magic among celebrities. We see Burt Lancaster dramatically unfurl a long and billowing petition for change in America.

But, we also see the complex and suspenseful behind-the-scenes challenges. We learn that U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the last living speaker who took the stage at the March, almost derailed the whole event that day in 1963. Some lines in an advance copy of Lewis’s talk were considered so explosive that several key speakers threatened to bolt in the middle of that historic event. Of course, all of us know what happened—the March ran its course until finally King could unleash his Dream. Even Oprah Winfrey shows up to help narrate the drama of that now-so-famous speech.

“It was the first time that most Americans had ever heard a complete King speech,” the film’s narrator tells us. And, what a speech it was! Even if you can rattle off the words by heart, don’t miss this documentary that tells the story of how it all happened—and how America changed, as a result.

ALSO—CHECK OUT THE WEB-BASED SERIES:
PBS The MARCH@50

The highly respected young filmmaker Shukree Tilghman developed this Web-based series for PBS. In an online landing page for The March@50, PBS describes the Web-based project this way:

“Fifty years after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, has America delivered on the marchers’ demands for Jobs, Freedom, Equal Education and Voting Rights? In the documentary Web series The March@50, filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman explores this question with a critical eye. Each short episode in the series examines a theme of the 1963 March on Washington through a contemporary lens. These short documentaries look at how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to address the major issues of the Civil Rights Era all these decades later.”

NOTE ON PHOTOS: Many photos from the civil rights era are held in private collections and archives. In covering the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963, ReadTheSpirit has chosen to publish primarily photographs from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which is “our own” national archive of materials for public use.

CARE TO READ MORE?

EXPLORE THE HISTORIC MILESTONE: Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays & Festivals column reports on major religious holidays and cultural milestones—including this in-depth look at the way Americans are remembering the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

READ THE COMIC BOOK: There’s no kidding in this comic book! As our story explains, it’s the true story of the civil rights movement—leading to the March on Washington—as told by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the last remaining speaker who addressed the crowd on the Mall 50 years ago.

(This film review and coverage of PBS broadcasts was originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online journal covering religion, spirituality and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Great With GroupsMovies and TVPeacemaking

King, the Birmingham Jail and ‘Gospel of Freedom’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

KING ANNIVERSARIES are popping up throughout this year, since 1963 was such a watershed in the civil rights movement. This spring, Read The Spirit reported on the 50th anniversary of King’s famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

Today, we are publishing a short review of Jonathan Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, written for us by the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer—a historian and author who wrote a series for us this spring on Abraham Lincoln.

We are reminding readers of King’s letter, this week, because of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the famous “Dream” speech. Research into King’s letter demonstrates the depth of the strategic planning that went into each of King’s most memorable utterances. In our spring story about the letter, we reported in part:

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s … letter should be remembered not as an impulsive note—but as a strategic step planned in advance like many of the great milestones in the civil rights movement. Today, King’s letter is dated to April 16, 1963, although the letter was completed over a longer period than that one day. The long manifesto was a rebuke of eight religious leaders who had just (on April 12) made a public appeal for an end to confrontational demonstrations. (Read that entire story, which also includes a link to the letter’s complete text.)

Jonathan Rieder’s
Gospel of Freedom

Review by the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer

The Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Dr. King on secreted scraps of paper while he did Holy Week jail time before the coming March on Washington has become “sacred literature in the long war against Jim Crow,” so writes Jon Meacham reviewing Jonathan Rieder’s new book Gospel of Freedom.

Rieder, a sociologist at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York, has, by all accounts, vindicated the Black church’s language and faith as the core of King’s defense of the civil rights movement at a time when the white church and Kennedy’s White House wished King would just slow down or go away.

It is the language of King’s letter—angry and loving– that draws Dr. Rieder’s focus. His deep research reveals what King’s Black church words meant in their context and how they would convey meaning in his “cross-over” talk to reluctant white people. This makes his book both moving and persuasive.

As one reviewer noted, it is as if to Rieder the “Letter” were a poem and the sociologist the poetic explicator.

Dr. Rieder has won praise from such real time luminaries as Andrew Young and James Forbes, who at a presentation of the book to a large gathering of the black community in Harlem said Reider writes about King the preacher that he knew, plumbing the depths of the spirituality out of which King’s leadership came.

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Categories: Great With GroupsPeacemaking

The March: U.S. Rep. John Lewis rewrites history with a comic book

UPDATE: Since this original 2013 column was published, Lewis released Volume 2 of his graphic novel and then in 2016 he published the third volume. All three volumes now are available in as a set from Amazon.

FROM TOP:

FROM TOP: New York Times and other major newspapers are extensively covering U.S. Rep. John Lewis and his comic book. The cover of Volume 1 in what Lewis projects as a series is titled “The March.” Even Stephen Colbert reported on Lewis’s publication. Finally, the cover of the 1958 comic book that inspired Lewis as a teen-ager.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia already is famous as a living hero of the civil rights movement, still crusading in Washington D.C. against new threats to civil rights. He regularly appears in major news reports about the controversy over voting rights in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that erases many long-standing protections. As the August 28th 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington looms, he suddenly is appearing on front pages and in network TV reports as the sole surviving speaker at that historic event in the summer of 1963.

What’s more, he’s suddenly popular with younger Americans as the first U.S. congressman to write a comic book—a graphic novel. He made a personal appearance at Comic-Con San Diego where even celebrities lined up to meet him. However, as the New York Times reports: Lewis was far more interested in this comic book “as a way for him to reach young people and fulfill his duty to ‘bear witness.'”

What the NYTimes did not report was that Lewis was inspired by a comic book he read as an 18-year-old budding activist. The Washington Post did include a mention of that 1958 comic book in its recent coverage of Lewis: “As a young man, Lewis got his hands on the 1958 comic book ‘Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,’ which, he said, with its poster-colored lesson of nonviolent protest, inspired many student activists. ‘It was about the way of love,’ Lewis says. ‘We were beaten and arrested . . . and that comic book inspired me to make trouble. But it was the good kind of trouble.’ “

Now out of print, the original comic is available in various archives. It was produced under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. You can see the cover of the comic book, at right today. You can read more about the history of the 1958 comic book, thanks to Comic Vine, a website that has emerged in recent years as well-respected haven of information on classic comics as well as reviews of current releases.

Read more about various key figures related to the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Daniel Buttry’s inspiring book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Buttry also has published online his entire chapter on the remarkably courageous career of John Lewis.

REVIEW OF ‘MARCH, BOOK ONE’
By David Crumm

As Editor of Read The Spirit online magazine, I am proud to say that we have published many stories about the importance of comics, comic books and graphic novels in sharing stirring stories about faith and cross-cultural issues.

So, I was eager to read John Lewis’s graphic novel and tell readers what you will find in between its brightly colored paperback covers.

The first surprise: While I understand that John Lewis is the first congressman to produce such a book, I still find myself stopping and staring at the book’s first page. Inside the front cover is one of U.S. Rep Lewis’s official Washington D.C. portraits. That juxtaposition alone—the 1960s civil rights movement on the cover and one of our nation’s top elected leaders on the inside cover—tells us a lot about this dramatic half century.

Of course, Lewis understands drama! The new PBS documentary film, The March, includes the story of how a very young John Lewis turned in an advance copy of the speech he intended to deliver at the podium in 1963—and discovering that his planned text was so dramatic that some of the more timid leaders almost bolted from the event.

In his graphic novel, Lewis opens his story on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Five pages of gripping scenes show the police violence unleashed that day on the steadfastly nonviolent protesters. Then—Lewis flashes forward to Washington D.C., as congressmen conduct the nation’s business these days. Visitors arrive at Rep. Lewis’s office and begin asking questions. Clearly, his concern as a storyteller is the important legacy of the civil rights movement. This isn’t a tale told for the sake of nostalgia; this comic book is an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people today.

In fact, most of “Book One” is about Lewis’s own youthful days in the movement—especially dramatic scenes in the nonviolent protests that opened up integrated seating at lunch counters. Appropriately, readers meet other heroes of the movement, too: Diane Nash and James Lawson make courageous appearances in this first book.

Book One ends with the triumph in Nashville, when segregated lunch counters finally yielded to the moral force and fearless action of the young protesters. An actual section of one such lunch counter now is on display at the Smithsonian Institution—on the very Mall where, in later volumes of Lewis’s graphic novel, the tide of history will carry these heroes.

CARE TO READ MORE? Order a copy of March Book One from Amazon. You also can read much more about John Lewis in this excerpt from Daniel Buttry’s book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers. We also have posted online Buttry’s stories about Nash and Lawson. Enjoy!

Care to See John Lewis?

Below, you can click to watch what we think is one of the best video news reports floating around the Internet about John Lewis’s new comic book project. If you don’t see a video screen in your version of this story, try clicking on the story’s headline to reload the page. (And note: The original poster of this news report on Lewis has included a 15-second commercial message that plays before the report.)

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Categories: Movies and TVPeacemaking

Will D Campbell (1924-2013) renegade pastor and peacemaker

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Young Americans may recall the courageous Will D. Campbell from his reincarnation as the bespectacled pastor Will B. Dunn in the comic strip Kudzu, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette. Veterans of the civil rights era recall Campbell as a renegade preacher who was the only white person present when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Campbell also was one of the four people who escorted black students first integrating the Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools.

Many know Campbell from his writings. Among his published works are his beloved autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, and a collection of his essays on activism: Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance.

When he died, a lengthy New York Times obituary began: The Rev. Will D. Campbell, a renegade preacher and author who joined the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, quit organized religion and fought injustice with nonviolent protests and a storyteller’s arsenal of autobiographical tales and fictional histories, died on Monday night in Nashville. He was 88. The Times continued with a recitation of historical details.

ReadTheSpirit invited one of Campbell’s friends—the well-known peace activist and writer Ken Sehested—to capture some lesser-known memories of this heroic prophet.

‘Don’t Confuse Your Job with Your Vocation’
A Remembrance of Will D. Campbell

by KEN SEHESTED

I was a stranger in a strange land, having left behind a Baylor University football scholarship for the alluring but intimidating environs of New York University’s Greenwich Village campus in Manhattan. I was so over being who I was, so eager for, if frightened by, what was to come. Odd that it was there, so far from home, that I should encounter the iconoclastic voice of a fellow Baptist-flavored Southerner whose testimony would come to profoundly impact the tenor of my own.

“Here’s somebody you should know about,” said Dr. Carse, my religion department mentor, as he tossed an open copy of Newsweek magazine across his desk. The upturned page contained a one-column profile of self-styled bootleg preacher, the Rev. Will Campbell. I quickly scanned the article through to the final paragraph which nearly jumped off the page, ending with a quote from Will: “Jesus is Lord, goddamnit!”

He certainly wasn’t a typical clergyman. On many occasions, since I got to know Will, I’ve heard him say: “Been a long time since I was a Southern Baptist preacher—but I’ll always be a Baptist preacher from the South.”

Will’s name may not be widely known, but his presence was deeply felt, and in the oddest assortment of circles, including civil rights activists, literary Illuminati, death-penalty opponents and the patrons of Gass’s honkytonk near Will’s home in Mt. Juliet, Tenn.

Will and his wife Brenda took my wife and me there for a catfish sandwich one weekend when we were guests. As soon as we ordered dinner Will got up and began to make the rounds of people he knew at several other tables, standing and chatting at most, occasionally pulling up a chair for longer chats. “He’s doing his pastoral visitations,” Brenda said, with a smile. The local band that evening invited “Brother Will” to join them as guest soloist for their last song before intermission, and Will obligingly belted out that country favorite, Red Necks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.

That’s one of the important lessons he taught me: that you might be a redneck if white liberals got rich making fun of you. The other really important lesson, from my earlier, first visit with him as a newly minted Master of Divinity from northern, liberal Union Seminary was: “Don’t confuse your job with your vocation.”

Will D. Campbell:
Ignoring death threats & vowing: ‘Gotta love ’em all.’

Campbell’s eccentricities are legendary. He describes his ordination into the Southern Baptist ministry at age 17 in his award-winning, Brother to a Dragonfly, which has been described as “part autobiography, part elegy for Campbell’s brother, part oral history of the Civil Rights Movement.” Born not just in Mississippi, but southern Mississippi, he would later be the only white invited to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (through which Martin Luther King Jr. would galvanize much of the modern Civil Rights Movement’s history). He grew so close to King that Campbell was the only white allowed in the mourning circle outside Dr. King’s Lorraine Motel room in Memphis following the assassination that set numerous US cities ablaze in despair. (The New York Times obituary shows Campbell in a moving photo of that grief-stricken circle, standing beside Ralph Abernathy.)

In a high-profile debate over the question of capital punishment, Campbell took to the podium—after his debate opponent’s learned, lengthy defense of the practice—to utter a one-sentence response: “I just think it’s [capital punishment] tacky.” Then he sat down.

Campbell received death threats for his outspoken opposition to segregation when he served as chaplain of the University of Mississippi; he counseled Nashville students—including telling them they could be killed, which they nearly were—as they planned to pick up the Freedom Ride that had been disrupted by a Birmingham, Ala., mob attack. Yet he carried out pastoral ministry to infamous Ku Klux Klan leaders, infuriating close allies by insisting that “if you’re gonna love one, you gotta love ‘em all.”

Will knew that red necks were the mark of white tenant farmers and laborers who knew nothing of the wealth accumulated by the nation’s (and not just the South’s) moneyed elites. Personally, I suspect Will would be privately pleased and vocally horrified that the New York Times assigned Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert D. McFadden to write that long obituary. I have witnessed a few moments when recognition—a feeling of being welcomed and celebrated by kindred folk—was an experience of surprised delight that showed in his face. None of us can be exiles everywhere and all the time. Yet he constantly ridiculed notoriety of every sort, savaged institutions of every cut and cloth, and few riled him more than fawning fans.

He was, as John Leonard wrote so long ago in his New York Times review of Brother to a Dragonfly, “a brave man who doesn’t like to talk about it….” Similarly, Rep. John Lewis, living icon of the Civil Rights Movement era, tweeted on the news of Will’s passing, “He never received the recognition he truly deserved.”

Hearing such, I can imagine Will pausing his heavenly choir rehearsal of Red Necks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer long enough to grouse, “Yes, John, that’s just the point. Mr. Jesus didn’t say ‘blessed are you who find fame for your trouble.’ Trouble? What trouble?”

Blessed Are the Peacemakers small coverCare to read more
on peacemaking?

Ken Sehested is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC, and author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public. Both Ken Sehested and Rep. John Lewis are part of Blessed Are the Peacemakers, a book with many profiles of heroes from the civil rights era.

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Categories: ChristianPeacemaking

PBS Independent Lens shows us ‘The House I Live In,’ an indictment of America’s ‘war on drugs’

REVIEW By ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

0408 PBS The House I Live In documentaryHow to tune in “The House I Live In”: The national debut of this new documentary by Eugene Jarecki (who earlier gave us the provocative Why We Fight) is Monday April 8, 2013. Dates and times vary on PBS stations. PBS’s Independent Lens website provides film clips and links to search for TV listings in your area.)

Our review …

PBS brings us an eye-popping look at our nation’s disastrous War on Drugs in a nearly two-hour documentary called, The House I Live In. You may ask: Given that drug crimes are everywhere we look in movies and TV series, these days, why watch even more television about the problem? The answer: Because a growing number of religious leaders and human rights activists are questioning the U.S. policy on throwing huge numbers of people into prison for nonviolent drug offenses—especially when a disproportionate number of those people are African-American.

The House I Live In is a superb choice for discussion groups and for anyone concerned about these issues. The documentary is packed with interviews at all levels of American law enforcement: We meet convicted felons; we meet cops and judges who lock them away; we meet officials in Washington D.C; we meet parents and children affected by this system.

Together, these stories underline the startling facts that filmmaker Eugene Jarecki wants to hammer home. We know that these are his core messages because he occasionally pauses the movie to print these findings on the screen, including:

  • Since 1971, the War on Drugs has cost over $1 trillion and resulted in more than 45 million arrests. During that time, illegal drug use has remained unchanged.
  • With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds 25 percent of its prisoners. Over 500,000 are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
  • Today, 2.7 million children in America have a parent behind bars. These children are more likely to be incarcerated during their lifetime than other children.

At several points in the documentary, we hear from David Simon, the journalist who now is famous for writing the award-winning TV series about the war on drugs, The Wire. He tells viewers, in part: We are the jailing-est country on the planet! Beyond Saudi Arabia, China and Russia! Nobody jails their population at the rate that we do—and yet drugs are purer than every before, they are more available, there are younger and younger kids who are willing to sell them. It would be one thing if it were draconian and it worked; but it’s draconian and it doesn’t work.

So, contact friends, invite your small group, or simply view this film to open your own thinking on these issues!

Originally posted at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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Categories: Great With GroupsMovies and TV