Will Campbell is one of the most colorful persons I have ever met, and I have just finished reading his captivating book Providence (1992). Campbell, a Baptist minister, activist, and author was born in Mississippi in 1924. He was the late cartoonist Doug Marlette’s inspiration for the character Will B. Dunn in his comic strip Kudzu.
Campbell is the author of many books, fiction and non-fiction. His autobiographical work Brother to a Dragonfly, which I enjoyed reading years ago, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978. And I found Providence, to be a fascinating narrative.
The unlikely theme of the nearly 300-page book Providence is the history of one section (one square mile) of land in Holmes County, MS. From the mid-1830s to 1938 that section was called Providence Plantation, and then from 1938 to 1955 it was Providence Cooperative Farm.
The latter was founded and run by missionary evangelist Sherwood Eddy and Rev. Sam H. Franklin with the goal of helping southern sharecroppers. Providence and another cooperative started earlier were organized around four principles: efficiency in production and economy in finance through the cooperative principle, participation in building a socialized economy of abundance, interracial justice, and realistic religion as a social dynamic.
According to Campbell, there were many problems and faults with the efforts of the leaders of the Cooperative Farm, although they meant well. I was especially interested in the many references to Sam Franklin (1902-94), for he went on to become a Presbyterian missionary to Japan. When I lived in Tokyo (from 1966 to 1968), I was a member of a book study group of which Franklin was a member, and I remember him well.
The first part of the book tells about the years when that part of Mississippi was occupied by the Choctaw Indians and the shameful efforts which drove the Choctaw from the land they had occupied for untold generations. Then Campbell narrates some of the evils of slavery and the mistreatment of those used as possessions by the white plantation owners.
Campbell goes on to describe the situation on that one square mile during the Civil War, during the terrible time of Reconstruction, and during the following half century of struggles by a series of plantation owners. The last part of the book then tells of Campbell’s own unsuccessful efforts to restore the plantation to the Choctaws.
For all of you who are interested not only in American history but particularly in justice issues, I highly recommend Providence. And if you don’t know much about Will Campbell, or even if you do, I think you will find his story engaging. If you would like to see a brief 2008 interview with Campbell, click here for his thoughts about “Racism and the Church” (a little over two minutes).