The University of Southern Mississippi -- McCain Library and Archives
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Collection Title: Erle E. Johnston, Jr. Papers
Collection Number: M319
Dates: ca. 1922-1999
Volume: 15.3 cubic ft.
Erle Ennis Johnston, Jr., was born on October 10, 1917, in Garyville, Louisiana, to Erle E. Johnston, Sr., and Grace Buchanan Johnston. Erle Johnston, Sr., worked in the lumber business and moved his wife and two sons, Erle and Bert, to Toledo, Ohio, and Jackson, Mississippi, before settling in Grenada, Mississippi, in 1928.
During his years at Grenada High School, Johnston played on the baseball team and was a member of the band. He also started the school's first newspaper and reported part-time for the Grenada Daily-Star. Economic difficulties denied Johnston the opportunity to attend college, so he went immediately to work after his high school graduation in 1935.
Johnston started out working simultaneously as a correspondent for the Jackson Daily News, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. In 1937, he secured a full-time job with the Clarion-Ledger. One of only eight staff members, Johnston served the newspaper first as state news editor, then as political reporter and oil and gas editor before becoming the first staff photographer for a daily Mississippi newspaper. In 1941, Johnston became part owner of the weekly Scott County Times of Forest, Mississippi. A year later, he bought out his partner's half and became the sole owner of the Times at the age of twenty-four. Johnston worked hard and successfully turned the fledgling paper into a profitable enterprise. The Scott County Times repeatedly received awards of excellence from the Mississippi Press Association, and in 1949, Johnston was elected the MPA's youngest president to date. He was also the only journalist inducted into Sigma Delta Chi, the national journalism fraternity, who had never attended college.
During World War II, Johnston found it difficult to make ends meet. To supplement his income, he assumed the position of State Director of the Office of War Information in 1943. Two years later, he was called to serve in the U.S. Army. After more than a year of service, Johnston returned to Forest and the Scott County Times. The entire time Johnston was away, his wife, Fay Martin Johnston, ran the newspaper.
Because of his reputation as a well-known and well-respected journalist and political reporter, Johnston became involved with public relations in a number of Mississippi political campaigns. His first assignment was with James O. Eastland's senatorial campaign in 1942. He then went on to work in the gubernatorial campaigns of Mike Sennett Conner in 1943 and Fielding Wright in 1947, John C. Stennis' 1947 senatorial race, Oscar Wolfe's congressional campaign in 1950, Hugh White's gubernatorial race in 1951, and Eastland's 1954 reelection campaign. Johnston served as publicity director for Ross Barnett's 1955 and 1959 campaigns for governor, as well as for his Unpledged Elector campaign in the 1960 presidential election. He also helped write and produce the telecasts of the inaugural ceremonies of Governors Ross Barnett, Paul B. Johnson, Jr., John Bell Williams, and William Waller.
Johnston's tenure with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission began in 1960, when he was appointed Director of Public Relations by Governor Barnett. The Sovereignty Commission, designed as the state's "segregation watch-dog agency," was created in 1956 in an effort to combat the threat of integration. The Sovereignty Commission came under attack by many civil rights activists, and it was Johnston's assignment to develop a publicity program that would counter such attacks and defend the commission. In 1963, Johnston became Executive Director of the Sovereignty Commission, a position he held until his resignation in 1968.
Johnston's next political endeavor was as Mayor of Forest from 1981 to 1985. During his term, Johnston focused on the advancement and development of the city's industry. Companies such as Hughes Aircraft and Sara Lee Bakeries found homes in Forest, which brought thousands of jobs to the area. In honor of his efforts to build up industry, a street in Forest's industrial park was named Erle Johnston Drive. Also during his service as mayor, the Johnston family sold the Scott County Times.
In 1979, Johnston's son, Erle "Bubby" Johnston, III, became the editor of the Scott County Times, and Johnston began a new career as an author of Mississippi politics. I Rolled With Ross: A Political Portrait, published in 1980, details the political life of Ross Barnett. Mississippi's Defiant Years: 1953-1973, published in 1990, is Johnston's personal account of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Politics: Mississippi Style, published in 1993, is a collection of political anecdotes from 1911 to 1979. At the time of his death, Johnston was working on a fourth book, tentatively titled "The Thunder of Elephants in Mississippi: From Bayonets to Ballots", about the history of the Republican party in the state.
Johnston was involved in a number of civic, religious, and community activities. He was an active member of the Forest Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the Retail Merchants Association, and the Country Club. He was a deacon and Sunday School teacher at the Forest Presbyterian Church, and worked with Little League baseball and the Boy Scouts.
In 1992, Johnston served as Co-Chairman of Tougaloo College's Committee on the Preservation of Civil Rights Activities. In 1994, he received what he considered to be his highest honor--induction into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame. He was also responsible for organizing the fortieth anniversary reunion of the players in the 1955 Junior Rose Bowl between Jones County Junior College and Compton Community College of California, which marked the first time a football team from Mississippi played against a racially integrated team.
Johnston died on September 27, 1995, after suffering a heart attack. He had three children, Carol Johnston Lindley, Lynn Johnston Catalina, Bubby Johnston, and five grandchildren.
This collection is comprised mainly of materials that document Erle Johnston's personal life and professional activities from approximately 1922 through his death in 1995.
The collection is divided into eight series:
Series I consists of subject files from Johnston's home office. Items in this series are arranged alphabetically, and include a wide variety of records, including correspondence, newspaper clippings, and photographs. Of particular interest in this series is the rich information pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Citizens' Council and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Examples of such files are Emmett Till, Clyde Kennard, the Philadelphia murders, Byron de la Beckwith, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Freedom Democratic Party, and minutes of meeting of the State Sovereignty Commission. Other topics in this series include the 40th anniversary reunion of the 1955 Junior Rose Bowl, campaign materials for several Mississippi politicians, such as Ross Barnett, James Eastland, and John Stennis, and materials collected by Johnston for Politics: Mississippi Style.
Series II contains subject files donated by Carol Johnston Lindley. Materials include family photographs and correspondence, news clippings about Johnston, and articles about his books. Of particular interest is a certificate presented to Johnston that accompanied an American flag that was flown over the nation's capitol on December 1, 1983.
Series III consists solely of cards and letters sent to Erle and Fay Johnston in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary on June 21, 1990.
Series IV contains materials related to Erle Johnston's death, including newspaper clippings and condolence cards. A copy of the eulogy and funeral book are also included.
Series V contains copies of Johnston's three published books, I Rolled With Ross: A Political Portrait, Mississippi's Defiant Years: 1953-1973, and Politics: Mississippi Style. Also included in this series are the manuscripts of these three books, as well as manuscripts of two unpublished works, "The Starter Girl" and "Short-Changed". In addition, copies of two oral histories with Johnston, one completed in 1991 for the John C. Stennis Oral History Collection at Mississippi State University, and the other in 1993 for the Mississippi Oral History Program of the University of Southern Mississippi, are located in this series.
Series VI is comprised of materials from five scrapbooks. Included are Johnston's personal scrapbook and one that covers his term as mayor of Forest from 1981 to 1985. There is also a memorial scrapbook that was put together by Johnston's family after his death. The other two contain clippings and articles about Johnston's books, Mississippi's Defiant Years: 1953-1973 and Politics: Mississippi Style.
Series VII consists of twenty-one videocassettes. Topics include the opening of Hughes Aircraft in Forest, the 40th anniversary reunion of the 1955 Junior Rose Bowl, the State Sovereignty Commission and the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and book promotions for Mississippi's Defiant Years and Politics: Mississippi Style.
Series VIII contains a variety of plaques and other personal items. The plaques include Johnston's induction into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame, numerous awards of excellence for the Scott County Times, and a plaque of appreciation for four years of dedicated service as Mayor of Forest. Artifacts and personal items include a framed dust jacket of Mississippi's Defiant Years, a desk set from Johnston's years as Mayor, his mounted bass fish that was the largest one caught in the Barnett Reservoir in 1973, the 1975 Forest BassMasters Lunker Award, a president's gavel from the Mississippi Airports Association, and memorabilia from the 40th anniversary reunion of the 1955 Junior Rose Bowl.
The Erle Johnston Papers should be beneficial to any researcher interested in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, as well as the political history of Mississippi in the twentieth century. The collection also provides insight into the life and personality of an important Mississippian.
Box and Folder List: Available.
Erle Johnston Oral History Interview, call number F341.5 .M57x vol. 276.
Copies of books by Erle Johnston are available in the Cook and McCain Libraries:
I Rolled with Ross: A Political Portrait (Baton Rouge: Moran, 1980), call number F345 .J64 1980 (Cook, McCain).
Mississippi's Defiant Years, 1953-1973: An Interpretive Documentary with Personal Experiences (Forest, Miss.: Lake Harbor Publishers, 1990), call number E185.93.M6 J58 1990 (Cook, McCain).
Politics: Mississippi Style (Forest, Miss.: Lake Harbor Publishers,
1993), call number F341 .J59x 1993 (Cook, McCain).