Brother to a Dragonfly Written by Will D. Campbell

Will D. Campbell was a Southern Baptist minister who was a prominent figure in the fight for desegregation in the Civil Rights era. Brother to a Dragonfly was published in 1977 by The Seabury Press. Totaling 268 pages, this work is best classified as a memoir of Campbell’s life during his most prominent years in as an activist with anecdotes of his upbringing in rural Mississippi sprinkled throughout the story.

Will Campbell. Southern Baptist Minister. Civil Rights Activist. Brother. (southernspaces.com)

Campbell’s story is overwhelmingly impressive. He was staunch civil rights activist with a long track record of success. He accompanied the Freedom Riders. He escorted students into the South’s first integrated school in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was personally invited by Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the 1957 Southern Christian Leadership Conference where he was the only white speaker. His renegade style of ministry made him enemies aplenty but friends in abundance. But despite all of this, the focus of his memoir is not on his civil rights accomplishments but on the life and struggles of his older brother, Joe.

"We're all bastards but God loves us anyway."-Will D. Campbell
Rev. Campbell meets with Rev. Ralph Abernathy after the assignation of Martin Luther King Jr. (Time.com)

It is not really the setting or the civil rights content that makes Brother to a Dragonfly feel Southern. It is the close relationship that Will and Joe share with each other. From the beginning of the work, it is apparent that the brothers are brought together by the struggles of growing up in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Joe protects Will from the hardships of rural living and encourages to pursue his dreams of going into the ministry. As the boys grow up, the roles reverse, and Will is left to take care of Joe, who struggles with his own personal demons. The overwhelming sense fraternal loyalty, remembrance of their tough upbringing, and dedication to one another makes this book feel Southern. Campbell’s inextricable link to his Southern roots and to his brother always bring his thoughts back to the South and the lessons that he learned there.

Rural Mississippi

Brother to a Dragonfly offers an in-depth look at how important religious institutions were to the civil rights movement and very candid snapshots of some of its most prominent figures; yet it also provides a human-interest aspect through the trials of Joe Campbell’s life. The alternation between personal anecdotes and historical narration makes the book very readable. The target audience at time of publication was most likely Southern folk who were sympathetic to the desegregation cause. Now the book best serves as a look into the life of a prominent civil rights activist. Brother to a Dragonfly was a National Book Award finalist.

Campbell standing on the Lorraine Motel balcony where Martin Luther Kind Jr. was assassinated. (Time.com)

I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in learning about the civil rights era from a religious perspective or is curious as to how white people influenced the movement. I would also recommend it to someone who enjoys stories with dynamic characters and wide ranges of emotion. To fully appreciate the story, the reader should have a sound working knowledge of civil rights leaders and events. Campbell does not provide much biographical context on his colleagues but tells plenty of personal stories about them. The book includes some graphic scenes of racial violence and drug use, which may be problematic for some readers.

This story introduced me to many heroic historical figures that I had not heard about before. The insight it gives into the personal life of an activist is profound. Most importantly, this story touched me on a personal level. I am from the rural South. Even though my upbringing was nowhere near as destitute as Campbell’s, his rise to success is inspiring and his refusal to turn his back on the South despite its downfalls was refreshing. I see myself and my peers in this story, especially as we push back against new waves of oppression.

4 out of 5 stars.

Campbell passed away in 2011 at the age of 88. (southernspaces.org)
"You know there's a lot more to this race thing than segregation."- Brother to a Dragonfly

Credits:

Created with images by Pilot MKN - "Mississippi Cotton Field"

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.