Percy Dale East dispels most stereotypes of southern racism with his persistent decency despite his suspect demographics. It would be comfortable to assume that the son of an itinerant white sawyer would suffer the socioeconomic stigma of his place to the point that he would need to lash out at the one caste below him. It would also be comfortable to assume that a man run out of the armed forces during World War II for shortcomings in discipline would lack the persistence to make more than a footnote in the civil rights movement. Cozier yet is the notion that a family man would neither fail at three marriages nor die of liver failure at age fifty. P. D. East dispels all these myths. He was born in Columbia, Mississippi on November 21, 1921. He was raised the adopted son of a roving saw miller and a boarding house mother, moving from camp to camp and surviving the stigma of his place in society with obnoxious èlan.
East attended Pearl River Junior College for a semester in 1939 before working in public transportation jobs. In 1942 he enlisted in the army, receiving a discharge after a year for his unsuitable demeanor. He returned to a former employer until 1947, when he took up journalism and writing at Mississippi Southern College (today, the University of Southern Mississippi). In 1951 he resigned his work with the rail line and began writing for Hattiesburg labor union newspapers. He founded the Petal Paper in 1953 as a forum for his acerbic wit and egalitarian ideals. The paper managed to survive until 1971, but cost him and his family more antagonism than we can imagine in the comfortable world P. D. East created. His public opinions on civil rights resulted in dogged threats, harassment, and eventual exile to Alabama. During Freedom Summer, his widow, Cammie East Cowan recalls, Klansmen put a $25,000 bounty on his head “back when that was an awful lot of money.” Almost always deeply in debt and often prostrate from a bleeding stomach ulcer, East died on December 31, 1971 of complications from liver failure. His papers are housed at Boston University. His memoir, The Magnolia Jungle: The Life, Times and Education of a Southern Editor was published in 1960.
The theology implicit in the following address stems in part from the office of Samuel L. Gandy, the Howard- and Chicago-educated dean of Lawless Memorial Chapel at Dillard University who extends a speaking engagement invitation to the unordained journalist. In this chapel address to students, members of the faculty, and administrators at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, East employs the extended metaphor of a medical diagnosis from a roving snake oil peddler to weave an endearing and intelligent rhetorical garment. His motivations for sharing this conceit are loyalty to a childhood friend in a temporary saw-mill camp and to his four-year-old daughter, Karen. In some detail, East diagnoses the South’s sickness and its addiction to snake oil. Part of his remedy involves a healthy dose
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Publication information: Book title: Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965. Contributors: Davis W. Houck - Editor, David E. Dixon - Editor. Publisher: Baylor University Press. Place of publication: Waco, TX. Publication year: 2006. Page number: 209.
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