George A. McLean was an educator, sociologist, and journalist who took a bankrupt Tupelo newspaper and turned it into the largest-circulation newspaper in the nation for a city its size. He then used the newspaper’s profits to fund projects that became a national model for economic development.
Born in Winona on 30 July 1904, McLean graduated from the University of Mississippi and went on to receive his master’s degree in religion from Boston University in 1928. He also did graduate work in psychology and sociology at Stanford University and the University of Chicago.
In 1934 McLean found himself out of work after being fired as a sociology and education instructor at Memphis’s Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) for helping to organize the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in neighboring Arkansas. That same year he used some of his family’s money to buy “a bankrupt biweekly from a bankrupt bank in the middle of a Depression.” At the time, the Tupelo Journal had fewer than five hundred paying subscribers. With no background in journalism or newspaper management, McLean quickly turned the newspaper around so that it began to show a profit. On 1 June 1936 it became the Tupelo Daily Journal. McLean funneled the paper’s profits back into the community through a series of economic development projects.
One of the first was the promotion of dairy farming, calling on local businesses to fund the purchase of cattle and start an insemination program that allowed those merchants to recoup their investments many times over while providing farmers with a steady income. McLean saw Tupelo and the surrounding Lee County area as a grand experiment in social reconstruction and economic diversification. On 6 April 1936, just a day after a tornado leveled most of the town and killed 230, McLean declared in an editorial, “Tupelo will build on this wreckage a better and greater city.”
Another of his early efforts was the formation of rural community development councils in Lee and surrounding counties. The councils initiated local community development projects and sought to erase the divide between rural areas and towns and cities. With the local economy based almost exclusively on agriculture, McLean saw the need to find new avenues for both income and employment. The US Department of Agriculture adopted the community development council idea as a nationwide model for rural development in the 1950s.
Community leaders did not always appreciate McLean’s efforts. In 1937 he and his newspaper sided with striking workers at the Tupelo Cotton Mill who were seeking an increase in their ten-dollar weekly salaries and a reduction in working hours from forty-six to forty. According to sociologist Vaughn Grisham, the first director of the George McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi, this stance “rankled industrialists across the state by accusing them of betraying Mississippi’s workers.” The feud caused a marked divide within the community but earned McLean recognition as Nation magazine’s Man of the Year. With the outbreak of World War II, the rift healed, and McLean put his personal involvement in his experiment on hold while serving in the US Navy.
After returning home, McLean resumed his efforts to diversify the local economy and create a regional identity. In 1948 he was one of the organizers of the Community Development Foundation, which promoted industrialization over agriculture and became a nationwide model for economic development. During the civil rights era, McLean’s promotion of the community as a whole—rural and urban, black and white—helped the region survive integration with no major conflicts.
In the 1970s McLean put up one million dollars of his and the Journal’s money to fund teachers’ aides in all first- and second-grade classes in Lee County’s public schools. The program sought to raise students’ reading levels, and the Mississippi legislature later adopted the idea statewide. In 1973 McLean gave his newspaper to his nonprofit foundation, Christian, Research, Education, Action, Technical, Enterprises (CREATE), which became the sole stockholder in what is now the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. As McLean stipulated, a portion of the foundation’s dividends is used for early childhood development and education, job training, and “the conscious, planned development of competent, unselfish leaders.”
McLean received many national honors for his work. Progressive Farmer named him its Man of the Year in 1948, and he was the first recipient of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Distinguished Citizen Award and of the University of Mississippi Journalism Department’s Silver Em award for outstanding journalistic achievement. McLean also served as a lay pastor at Tupelo’s First Presbyterian Church for many years.
McLean died on 1 March 1983 in Tupelo of complications from a stroke. His widow, former schoolteacher Anna Keirsey Rosamond McLean, a native of Paragould, Arkansas, continued as owner and publisher of the Daily Journal until her death in 2000.
- Danny Duncan Collum, Sojourners Magazine (October 2004)
- Sandy Grisham, George McLean Institute for Community Development website, www.mcleancommunitydev.org
- Vaughn L. Grisham Jr., Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community (1999)
- Phyllis Harper, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (21 May 1995)
- New York Times (2 March 1983)
- Joe Rutherford, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (21 May 1995)