This is a short excerpt from the chapter “Everything but country”
in White Bred: Rednecks, Hillbillies, and White Trash Against White Supremacy
“I’m here to integrate this joint.”1 That’s how three-time heavyweight boxing champion, Vietnam War resister, and Black Muslim Muhammed Ali explained his presence to an unlikely gathering in Nashville, TN in 1979. Ali was there to celebrate the christening of Shooter Jennings, the new son of outlaw country musician Waylon Jennings, with whom he had developed a close personal friendship. Shooter’s godfather Johnny Cash, along with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were there as well.
Fifteen years after he passed away, several of Waylon’s demo recordings were posthumously released by his son Shooter, titled simply New Stuff. The core of the record is a proper tribute to Waylon’s friend, “Here’s to the Champion.” Celebrating Ali’s confidence and brashness, Waylon endorses Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War singing, “You stood alone and you had to be strong, you proved to be right when your country was wrong.”
Sitting with Ali at this remarkable gathering was a white, tobacco-chewing, renegade southern Baptist “bootleg preacher” and amateur country musician named Will Campbell. One journalist described him as
one of the South’s leading preachers—an earthy, erudite theologian and author who takes satisfaction in giving offense, in proclaiming a kind of scandalous, radicalized vision of the faith, producing shock and astonishment nearly anywhere he goes.2
Two decades before this gathering, Campbell helped escort nine young Black students to school in Little Rock, Arkansas while foaming racists hurled abuse.3 That same year, Campbell was the sole white person in attendance at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While some activists opposed his presence, Bayard Rustin demanded, “Let this man in. We need him.”4 Later, Campbell served as the advisor for the Southern Student Human Relations Seminar (SSHRS) which brought together southern students to strategize against racism.5 Many of Campbell’s students would later become active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
1 Jennings, Waylon, and Lenny Kaye. Waylon : An Autobiography. New York: Warner Books, 1996. p. 384.
2 Gaillard, Frye. Race, Rock & Religion : Profiles from a Southern Journalist. Charlotte, NC: East Woods Press, 1982. p. 44.
5 Zellner, Bob, and Constance Curry. The Wrong Side of Murder Creek : A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement. NewSouth Books, 2008. p. 114–118.