P. D. East and the Petal Paper followed in the tradition of the satirical personal essayist and pamphleteer. East’s iconoclastic style was more akin to that of his North Carolina contemporary and supporter, Harry Golden, and his Carolina Israelite than to the community newspaper conventions of mid-twentieth-century American journalism. The Petal Paper’s prickly barbs and satirical bombasts aimed at small-town segregationists, the Citizens’ Council, and the Ku Klux Klan were so successful that the paper lost all its local subscribers and only barely survived with the support of a national audience.
Percy Dale East was born on 21 November 1921 in Columbia, Mississippi, and was adopted by James and Bertie East five days later. The Easts labored in Piney Woods lumber camps south of Hattiesburg, his father as a manual laborer and his mother as a boardinghouse operator. East was a lackluster student, spending “five years on what should have been a three-year job” to earn a high school diploma. Formal higher education included one semester at Pearl River Community College and a few courses at Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi).
East worked briefly for Greyhound Bus Lines in Hattiesburg before becoming a ticket clerk for the Southern Railway System. He was drafted into the US Army in December 1942 but discharged a year later as “temperamentally unsuited for the rigid discipline demanded by the military.” He returned to the Southern Railway System until July 1951, when he became editor of the Union Review and Local Advocate, labor union newspapers in Hattiesburg. East sought a livelihood as a full-time weekly newspaper publisher in Petal, across the Leaf River from Hattiesburg, by following the editorial formula “Love American Motherhood and Hate Sin.” The Petal Paper’s inaugural edition appeared on 19 November 1953, with six pages and thirty-nine advertisements “designed to keep everyone happy.” His first year was profitable, but a November 1954 editorial opposing a constitutional amendment to allow the state legislature to abolish the public school system in the event of integration brought the happy days to an end.
In the following months, East unleashed a barrage of screwball satire to ridicule segregation, white supremacy, and massive resistance to integration. He advocated replacing the magnolia as the state symbol with the crawfish because the crawfish’s idea of progress was to move “backward toward the mud from which he came.” East lampooned Mississippi’s US senator James O. Eastland as “Our Jungle Gem.” One satirical editorial described St. Peter interrogating blacks at the entrance to heaven. Another editorial addressed to Bible Belt Brethren translated the King James Version of the Bible into the Dixiecrat tongue: “‘And he took the DIXIE CUPS, and gave thanks that they were SEPARATE BUT EQUAL, and said, Take this MINT JULEP and divide it among yourselves.’ Dixiecrat Luke 22:17.” East castigated the Citizens’ Councils and Ku Klux Klan as the “Bigger and Better Bigots Bureau.” A “news story” reprinted the text of a speech by the Honorable Jefferson D. Dixiecrat to the Mississippi Chapter of the Professional Southerners Club, extolling its progress in keeping blacks from voting.
The Petal Paper’s most legendary broadside took the form of a March 1956 full-page advertisement with a caricature of a mule proclaiming, “Yes, You too, can be SUPERIOR, Join the Glorious Citizens Clan Next Thursday Night!” For only five dollars, “Citizens Clan” members received ten freedoms, including “Freedom to yell ‘N——-’ as much as you please without your conscience bothering you!” and “Freedom to be superior without brain, character, or principle!” A note at the bottom of the page declared, “This Page in Behalf of Liberalism, Fairness and Progress Donated by The Petal Paper.” Known as the “jackass” advertisement, it was reprinted in the Reporter (March 1957) and Harper’s (January 1959) and by East’s account had appeared in all fifty states, Canada, Japan, Ireland, Australia, France, Italy, and Germany.
By November 1956 wholesale cancellations of local advertising and subscriptions left the Petal Paper struggling along on out-of-state subscriptions and donations. “Friends of P. D. East” mustered financial and moral support from Steve Allen, Harry Belafonte, Harry Golden, John Howard Griffin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, generating five thousand dollars in 1959. A year later, Louisville Courier-Journal editor Mark Ethridge, a native Mississippian who had encouraged East to write about race, remarked that “his paper is a hobby now rather than a business.” Royalties from East’s memoir provided a brief financial respite, but the Petal Paper, already appearing irregularly, continued only sporadically after East relocated to Fairhope, Alabama, in 1963 to escape threats and harassment. By 1968, he had accrued debts totaling twenty-five thousand dollars.
“The loner of the civil rights movement,” East died of liver failure in Fairhope on 31 December 1971. His memoir, The Magnolia Jungle: The Life, Times, and Education of a Southern Editor (1960), ended with a fitting epitaph: “His beloved Magnolia Jungle needed a path. It needed clearing. Let it be said of P. D. East: With his heart and his hatchet he hacked like hell!”
- P. D. East Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi
- John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (1961)
- Gary Huey, Rebel with a Cause: P. D. East, Southern Liberalism, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1953–1971 (1985)