There have been many heroes in the civil rights movement. Recently, I’ve learned of another.
Percy Dale (P.D.) East was a white native of Mississippi who developed a refined sense of racial justice while being raised in sawmill camps in the southern part of the state by a blacksmith father and a mother who ran boardinghouses. As an adult, he found his calling after taking some writing courses at Mississippi Southern College. His path was to found the weekly newspaper Pedal Paper in Pedal, Mississippi, near Hattiesburg.
Then on May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court desegregated schools when it released the decision Brown v. Board of Education. Fiercely segregated Mississippi saw tragedy; East saw opportunity. This was the chance for the state to throw off the shackles of its past and move forward. Since few of his advertisers saw things the same way, how do you tell a society you think it’s wrong?
Satire. The Pedal Paper embarked on a campaign for racial equality by poking fun at the states’ misplaced values, like the pictured fictional ad. It became an indirect thorn in the side of segregation by exposing hypocrisy with humor.
Of course, there were serious repercussions. The Pedal Paper lost most of its local circulation and advertising; it was forced to rely on wealthy patrons across the country. In a state where challenging the norms could get you killed, a bounty of $25,000 was ultimately put on East’s head. Such stress did have an impact; P.D. East died in 1971 at age 50. The cause of death was listed as liver failure, but his wife said “In a sense, he died of Mississippi.”
Why haven’t you heard of P.D. East before? The Pedal Paper was never large; peak circulation was only 2300. It never took on specific issues, choosing to poke fun instead at racism in general. Others yelled louder.
P.D. East did write a memoir entitled The Magnolia Jungle: The Life, Times and Education of a Southern Editor. The source for this piece is “What Made P.D. East the Fearless Wit of Forrest County” by William Browning (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-made-pd-east-fearless-wit-segregationist-south-180970036/) which is also in the September, 2018 issue of Smithsonian magazine. The photos came from the website.