Percy Dale East, editor and publisher of The Petal Paper, Petal, MS, spoke “On the Attainment of Distinction.”  A former editor of two union papers in Hattiesburg, MS, East founded his newspaper in 1953.  Violent local reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision caused East to devote his paper and the rest of his life to the belief that African Americans must receive fair treatment and legal equality. 

At the beginning of his remarks at Vassar—a version of an essay published in Harper’s Magazine in 1959—East noted his recent review of Black Like Me (1961) “by a close friend whom I admire and respect, John Howard Griffin.  I gave the book a good review, which, in my opinion, it deserved.

“After publication of my review, I had a few letters from readers around the country; they were kind letters, on the whole.  However, there was one letter from Jackson, Mississippi, written by a lady there.  Along with other things, she wrote: (and I’m quoting) ‘Mr. East, you’re a traitor, a disgrace to your state, your family, and to yourself.  Any native Mississippian who’d write as you did about that book is—is nothing but an S. O. B.’

“I’ve had a few such letters before, but never once did I answer them; however, this time I broke my rule and replied to the lady.  I began by saying: ‘Dear Mother:’

She hasn’t answered—not yet.”

Turning to his subject, distinction, East cited himself as an example of its attainment:

“My claim to distinction, actually, is two-fold.  First, I own a weekly newspaper in the village of Petal, located two miles from the town of Hattiesburg, in Forrest County, Mississippi….  My newspaper has the lowest per capita circulation of any in the world.  I confess to an abounding ignorance of arithmetic, but I think in dealing with material objects the lowest count is zero.  And zero is the number which represents my circulation in the area (whose claim to distinction is, as proud Petalite[s] will tell you, that it is ‘the largest unincorporated town in the country.’)  Second, my paper is…the only one in the nation with an unlisted telephone number.  I wish to point out that to reduce a local circulation from 2,300 to zero in only five years requires a certain ability and constant effort….  Frankly, you’ve got to work at it full time—and a ringing telephone is distracting….

“The secret of my early taste of success was relatively simply.  I had reached a startling conclusion: that Negroes were, after all, people….  I reached that conclusion from reading the Constitution of the United States, and especially the amendments to it, which impressed me, and wouldn’t turn loose from my memory.”

East’s enumerated editorial “distinctions”—suggesting substitution of the backward-scuttling crawfish for the magnolia as a state symbol, supporting the candidacy of “Cornpone P. Neanderthal” against Mississippi’s iconic segregationist Senator James Eastland, average local sales of his memoir, The Magnolia Jungle: The Life, Times and Education of a Southern Editor (1960), of “one-half book a month”—alongside his accounts of the threats directed at him, his wife and his 10-year-old daughter, culminated in declarations:

“There is no place in the nation for slavery, be it economic, political, religious, or in any other form….  When men are denied their liberties guaranteed by the law of the land, that constitutes a form of slavery.   And when and where one slave exists, it is a paradox, perhaps, but you’ll find two slaves, for whomsoever would keep a man down must stay down with him.

“In simple economic terms, we, as a Nation, as individuals, cannot afford to deny our freedom, our liberty to all men….

“For, in the final analysis, from my point of view, freedom is the only distinction worth attaining.”

Although the paper had no local advertisers or subscribers, a “P. D. East Committee,” formed in New York in 1959, subscribers in all 50 states and six European countries and his lecture fees helped The Petal Paper to appear as a weekly until East’s death in 1971.     The University of Southern Mississippi Digital Collections