One of the most memorable essays I’ve ever read came attached to one of the most surprising and unexpected books I’ve ever read. That book was “Brother to a Dragonfly,” a personal memoir by Will D. Campbell, a white Baptist preacher from southern Mississippi who variously described himself as an “outlaw,” a “renegade” or a “bootlegger” within the world of white Southern Protestant theology. Campbell, who died in 2013 at age 88, was an important figure in American cultural and religious history, especially considering that almost no one has heard of him. In particular, he was a hero in the fight against white supremacy, who grasped early on perhaps its most pernicious and insidious quality: White supremacy cripples and kills white people.
I’m going to insist on the importance of that fact, which is not to diminish the fact that in a host of more obvious ways, white supremacy has killed black people by the thousands, perhaps the millions, and continues to do so. If this were a contest to see who has suffered most from racism, I think the winner is clear. But it’s not. It’s America, a nation tormented by the racial violence of its past and its present, not all of which has been tangible or physical in nature. There’s a standard pseudo-Marxist sociological argument that racism is difficult to combat because whites benefit from it and stand to lose out, in relative terms, if a society becomes less racist or non-racist. That has a certain crude economic logic to it, no doubt. But what in the name of God do we mean by “benefit”?
I’ve written about this previously: Look around you at America — at white America in particular, and at the angriest and most race-obsessed corners of white America, where people are most likely to support a certain orange presidential candidate who yells a lot. Look at the epidemic rates of obesity, of heart disease, of adult-onset diabetes and opioid addiction and suicide, which has reached truly alarming levels among middle-aged, lower-income white men and is a far more common cause of firearms death than murder. Are these happy people, in a happy place? If they are voting for Donald Trump because he represents the values of white supremacy — which, I agree, in large part they are — what possible benefit do they derive from that system?
If you’re already sorry that this column will end up being partly about Trump, so am I. That hateful ogre is the Alpha and Omega of all political discourse in America in 2016, and the swamp into which all rivers flow. I do not claim to know whether Trump’s cruel joke of a presidential campaign will conclude with the cruelest joke of all, his election. But I don’t have a good feeling; do you? No one can now claim that President Trump is unimaginable, and no one can reasonably claim that it’s not what we deserve. We have hypnotized ourselves into idiocy, and — surprise! — now we are idiots. If white supremacy has poisoned America — if it has poisoned white people in particular, turning them dark and hateful — it has nurtured Trump. To turn Nietzsche’s maxim inside out, what kills us makes him stronger.
I have talked and written far too much about Donald Trump, not that I’m alone in that. It’s far more worthwhile right now to talk about Will Campbell, and about his longtime friend Jimmy Carter, who wrote that essay I mentioned earlier as the foreword to the 25th-anniversary edition of “Brother to a Dragonfly.” Those people can still help us, whereas Trump can only destroy. He is incapable of helping anyone.
To a significant extent, Campbell represented the road not taken in the white South — and not just in the South. Honestly, we have a tendency to pin our sins on the South that is not entirely fair. He represented an alternate mode of consciousness for American white people, one that did not require an Ivy League education or a Northeast Corridor address or an appetite for $6 cups of coffee. Why that mode of consciousness did not win out — why so many whites in the Trump era have defaulted backward to the discredited and destructive ideas of yesteryear — is a difficult and troubling question.
In his later years, Campbell was known for ministering to a wide variety of “unchurched” people who had lost touch with organized religion but still considered themselves Christians, from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to the inmates at Tennessee state prisons. He held unauthorized marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples decades before that was legal in any state, and reportedly presided over divorces as well. He once held a funeral for an entire town: Golden Pond, Kentucky, whose residents had been evicted by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
But Campbell’s only real brush with fame came as a young man, when he advocated for racial integration as the newly appointed chaplain at the University of Mississippi — in 1956, when virtually every white minister of virtually every Southern denomination found some way to apologize for Jim Crow. That stance cost him his job, of course, but also opened his eyes to new possibilities, and a new calling. Campbell was present at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, when it was desegregated by federal troops in 1957. He was present at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. If Campbell was by many standards an activist or a radical, whose circle of friends and acquaintances included the Trappist monk and philosopher Thomas Merton, the French anarchist Jacques Ellul, comedian Dick Gregory and cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, he would likely have steered away from those words.
His life’s work was about reconciliation, a complicated word with a long history in theology, moral philosophy and law. On several occasions Campbell reportedly facilitated private meetings between former Black Panthers and former Klansmen, perhaps on the premise that members of groups so vilified by mainstream society might find something to talk about. Around the time I first read Campbell’s book, I had a long conversation with the journalist and onetime presidential press secretary Bill Moyers, who himself holds a divinity degree from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Moyers often talks about the long-term consequences of the era when the white South “closed the wagons around itself,” and “drove the truth-tellers out of the pulpits, out of the newsrooms and out of the classrooms.” I asked if he meant people like Campbell. Moyers seemed surprised that a Yankee knew the name, but agreed at once: “Absolutely. Him most of all.”
I recently moved and can’t find my copy of “Brother to a Dragonfly,” which doesn’t seem to be available on the Internet in any form, legal or otherwise (a relative rarity these days). So I can only paraphrase Carter’s foreword, in which he writes about growing up in a white family in rural Georgia in the 1930s and ’40s, under the universal assumption that whites and blacks were different in some unspecified way, and certainly not equal in terms of capacity or opportunity or possibility. Like most white people in that environment, the future president did not question that assumption, and certainly did not understand that it was a necessary ideological component in a system of oppression.
Most people yearn to believe they are doing the right thing, and invent arguments to support that premise. The manifest cruelty and unfairness of Jim Crow segregation could only be justified by a widely held belief that people of different races were, well, different, and needed to be kept apart in disparate conditions for a whole range of reasons, not all of which were spoken aloud in public. That was the system we now call white supremacy, which sometimes meant lynching black men in the town square for real or imagined offenses against the social order, and sometimes — more often, actually — meant benevolent assurances that separate schools and neighborhoods and restaurants and drinking fountains would allow black people, in the fullness of time, to work their way toward civilization.
In the context of the white South in that era, Carter writes, people like Will Campbell — who repeatedly told white people that they were lying to themselves about their own history, about slavery and the Civil War, and about the supposedly contented condition of “the Negro” — were confusing and irritating. But when the Civil Rights movement came along, Carter said he experienced a gradual awakening, and a realization that Campbell and the other “truth-tellers” of the white South had been right all along. If many whites experienced that era as bewildering and chaotic, Jimmy Carter says he experienced it as a personal and spiritual boon, in which “the burden of white supremacy” was lifted from him.
Let’s think about that, because it’s an extraordinary statement. Of course I am supposed to pause here and say that the emotional or spiritual lives of white people are not the focal point of history, and that it’s vastly more important that the Civil Rights movement represented an enormous step forward for American society, and an explosion of pride and self-awareness among African-Americans whose ripples were felt around the world. That’s all true. But the idea Jimmy Carter proposes in that essay, and that Will Campbell lived by, is nonetheless radical or revolutionary. It is that white people do not suffer when white supremacy is ended or ameliorated. In fact, they are made better, happier and more complete people, potential partners in all the dialogue and drama of the human race, instead of poisoned robots in thrall to a transparently false and evil ideology.
It’s no mystery to historians or sociologists or psychologists that systems of oppression damage the oppressor as well as the oppressed: You can find examples ranging from Anglo-Irish society to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to apartheid South Africa. But we’re not good at history here in America, or good at reading. We have to go by the empirical evidence in front of us, which suggests that a large proportion of white Americans have been severely damaged by the legacy of white supremacy, and now suffer from a kind of dementia disorder. They seek to blame people of other races or people from other countries for problems that are either self-inflicted or the work of their capitalist overlords. And in the name of reclaiming a lost golden age, they are rushing to sign their own death warrant.