Percy Dale (P. D.) East may not be an iconic name in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, but he made his mark as a satirist who would be more popular now than he was then.
Even then, though, he was well liked by some well-known national personalities who today would be described as “progressives.” But he was eschewed in Petal, Miss., where he published a small weekly newspaper.
I hadn’t thought much about P. D. lately, until last month when I received an e-mail from freelance journalist William Browning asking if I knew him.
Browning, who studied journalism at Ole Miss and once worked for the Greenwood Commonwealth, has written articles for several national publications, including a long one on East in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2018.
He is now working on a biography of East, and he wondered, since I grew up in the Petal area, if I recalled anything about him and his newspaper.
Indeed I did know East — well enough that he and his wife at the time gave me a graduation gift when I finished high school in 1953.
At that time, East and my father, the late R.R. “Huck” Dunagin, were business associates in a publication called “The Union Review.” I don’t recall the frequency of publication; probably every couple of weeks.
Dad was the union chief steward at the Hercules plant in Hattiesburg and carried the title of editor. P. D. managed the business side of the paper, selling advertising and taking it to a printer 20 or 30 miles away where it was put together and produced.
By 1954, Dad and P. D. had parted company after East started his Petal Paper.
Browning accurately notes in his Smithsonian article that East started his weekly newspaper in typical fashion, covering local news and staying out of controversy.
But by 1955 he had become a crusader against segregation, which then was the law in Mississippi, and used satire to get his message across.
Among other things, he proposed changing the state symbol from the magnolia to the crawfish because the crawfish only moves “backward, toward the mud from which he came.”
Browning wrote in the Smithsonian that “the tiny Petal Paper, circulation 2,300 at its peak, launched one of the most relentless and single-minded crusades in the history of the Southern press, during which East went from being an eager-to-please businessman to what he called an ‘ulcerated, pistol-packing editor’ who took on the biggest issue of his day with unforgiving satire. His unique stand for racial equality put him in touch with Eleanor Roosevelt, William Faulkner, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Upton Sinclair, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and the TV entertainer Steve Allen and his actress wife, Jayne Meadows. It also got East spied on, spat upon and threatened with violence and worse.”
Eventually, East — who by then was receiving financial support from some of the above — moved from Petal to Fairhope, Ala., where he continued to publish the paper on a monthly basis. He died on New Year’s Eve, 1971 at the age of 50.
I was reminded again of P.D. last week when it was called to my attention that the Clarion Ledger and other Gannett newspapers, including USA Today, have gone to capitalizing the word black as if it is a proper noun when referring to African-Americans, their movement or community.
Michael McCarter, USA Today’s managing editor of standards, ethics and inclusion, wrote in a column that the publication’s diversity committee considers “Black” as “an ethnoracial identifier that is inclusive of the collective experiences of the Black U.S. population, including recent immigrants. Capitalizing Black reflects an understanding and respect that is consistent with how many Black people and Black publications describe the people and descendants of the African diaspora and reflects a rich range of shared cultures.”
It strikes me as ironic that one of the things I recall about East is that in his Petal Paper he threw out the normal English rules of capitalization of proper nouns. If he didn’t like a certain Mississippi public official he wouldn’t capitalize the first letter in his name.
The Clarion Ledger, which in East’s day was a beacon for maintaining racial segregation, is now doing the same thing in an opposite way.