A 2019 image by photojournalist Julie Dermansky of The Rev. William Barnwell at a protest in Louisiana's Cancer Alley.

The Lens lost an important friend Friday night, and so did New Orleans. The Rev. William Barnwell died at Ochsner, presumably of coronavirus. He had been on a ventilator for several days. He was 81. 

William was a preacher and a civil rights advocate, the author of many books, a father, a husband, a man of many accomplishments. But by every instinct and with consummate skill, his life could be summed up in another way: he was above all an organizer. He was relentless. He could read a room — and immediately begin putting together people he thought might be good at energizing each other in common cause. If you were his friend, you were not immune to recruitment.

The room he was reading might be folks assembled at his Uptown home for drinks and dinner or the much larger groups who assembled on Monday nights at meetings of Justice and Beyond, the activist force that had become a center of William’s advocacy work in the last several years of his life. 

He was never afraid to talk truth to power no matter how vengeful power might become. He had been joyfully active for years with the prison ministry called Kairos. But his deepening involvement with prisoners at Angola — including a Death Row inmate he was counseling who committed suicide — awakened him to the horrors of solitary confinement, and he did not hesitate to launch a campaign against it. The immediate result: he was banished from Louisiana’s giant penitentiary for life. He continued his fight in print, including through his columns in The Lens and other publications.   

More recently, William had marched with Justice and Beyond and upriver allies to oppose the multi-billion-dollar Formosa chemical plant planned in St. James Parish. It struck him as insane to be cutting huge tax breaks to build a facility like that in the era of worsening carbon pollution and climate change. And it was only more deeply offensive to William, given the plant’s obvious menace to the health of the local community — mostly black, mostly poor, and already sickened by the carcinogenic pollution in the part of Louisiana known nationally as Cancer Alley.

William had not come effortlessly to the convictions and principles that shaped a deeply Christian life. A Southern boy raised in Charleston, S.C., he was educated at University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., then dropped out of a theological seminary, after finding the early struggles against racism hard to reconcile with the segregationist values and traditions of the beloved family that raised him. After he overcame his early resistance and became an avid foe of white supremacy, his parents refused to speak to him for a month.

A tenet of his faith, both spiritually and politically, was to affiliate with black-led organizations and take direction from their leaders. That said, he made no effort to conceal his privileged roots and status in the world. It would have been hard, in any case, given his rich Charlestonian accent and commanding stature. Unlike some pastors, he never saw fit to discard his priest’s collar. And so there he’d be, often one of very few white faces in meetings and marches dominated by people of color.  

His coming of age and political evolution were captured in an extraordinary early book about racism, “In Richard’s World: Battle of Charleston 1966.” Subsequent memoirs and calls to action included “Lead Me On, Let Me Stand: A Clergyman’s Story in White and Black,” a book in which William displayed his sometimes-startling ability to own up to past mistakes, learn from them and move on. His book “Angels in the Wilderness” profiled young New Orleanians, many from low-income backgrounds, who showed leadership and offered great promise during the period of the city’s revival following Katrina.

A peripatetic career brought him into ministry at a variety of churches including Trinity Episcopal and St. Luke’s Episcopal in New Orleans, Trinity Episcopal in Boston and Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia.  

Composite image by Tom Wright/The Lens

It was my privilege to edit some of William’s opinion columns for the Lens and to provide informal feedback on his books as he wrote them. Ever the organizer, he recruited me into doing a lengthy afterword for “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted,” his book about prosecutorial injustice and the urgent need for prison reform. 

He was indefatigably courteous and warm-hearted even when our disagreements were sharp. 

William is survived by two daughters, a son, six grandchildren, and by his wife Corinne, whose early commitment to social justice brought her into the Freedom Summer struggles of 1964. More recently she has fought to keep Planned Parenthood out of the clutches of zealots and political conservatives striving to shut it down.

Jed Horne was an editor with The Lens for many years and collaborated with the Rev. Barnwell on some of his books and articles.

Jed Horne

Opinion Editor Jed Horne is a veteran journalist who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize as part of the Times-Picayune team that covered Katrina and the recovery. He is the author of