A professor went to prison to teach; he had a lot to learn.
Appears in Spring 2016 Issue: The Rule of Law, The Way of Love
by David Dark
March 3rd, 2016
Many years before I set foot in a prison, I passed an afternoon in conversation with the writer, provocateur, and Baptist minister Will Campbell at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. A friend to Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Kris Kristofferson, Will was that rare white Southerner whose witness throughout the civil rights era was famously—or notoriously— exemplary. At the risk of life and limb, he ushered the Little Rock Nine past an angry white mob in 1957, he counselled and supported Freedom Riders in the sixties, and he ministered to imprisoned Klansmen in the seventies. He was in his eighties when we met, and while his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times when he died in 2013, he did not conduct himself in the manner of a legendary historical figure. He looked after and loved the distinctly unfamous marginalized, estranged, and incarcerated people of middle Tennessee while steadfastly refusing to credit any hierarchy or system that would place any person even a little bit higher (or a little bit lower) than anyone else. As a relentlessly witty and intensely articulate opponent of every ideology that degrades the human form and an aggressive ambassador of reconciliation, it was as if he'd never met a snob he wasn't hell-bent on talking out of—or delivering from—their own snobbery.
I begin with Will because of one exchange, one question within an exchange actually, that has followed me, haunted me, and remained essential to me in my six years as an alleged teacher of individuals within the Tennessee Department of Correction. Will was recounting a recent trip to visit a seventy-three-year-old, incarcerated friend in Kentucky. In an hours-long drive with a small group, his party arrived at checkpoint and prepared to go through security. A young male guard pointed out that one member of their party was wearing shoes that failed to meet regulatory standards for inmate visitation. Will wondered aloud if it might be possible to make an exception when the guard started yelling: "One more word out of you and none of you see anyone here today!"
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