Petal Mississippi

The Theological Education of Will Campbell

P. D. East was the illegitimate son of a prominent but promiscuous Mississippi daughter. He came to be cared for, and later adopted by, an itinerant sawmill couple who brought him to manhood in the logging camps of southern Mississippi.

He bought the Petal, Mississippi, newspaper (The Petal Paper) shortly before the Supreme Court decision of May 17,1954, on the unconstitutionally of separate-but-equal public schools. By editorially advocating complete integration at every level of society, he hit upon a formula for journalistic suicide. In a combination Will Rogers-Mark Twain style he began satirizing the state legislature, making fun of the powerful White Citizen’s Council, the Governor, Senator James Eastland and anyone else he considered deserving of his wrath and wit. He proposed editorially that the state engage in a bit of zestful zoology and adopt the crawfish as the state symbol—because it always moved backward, and generally into the mud from which it came.

All this led to the demise of his newspaper as a profitmaking venture within a matter of months. He continued to publish his little tabloid, but without a single local advertiser. And soon it had to be done in exile, as he grew weary of the constant threats upon his life and the lives of his wife and child. With fundraising letters from people like Harry Golden and John Howard Griffin he managed to survive in Fairhope, Alabama, outside Mobile, and continued to send his paper to several thousand folks, not one of whom lived in the county where his paper had originated.

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