Erle Johnston

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Erle Ennis Johnston, Jr.

Mayor of Forest
in Scott County, Mississippi
In office
Preceded by Fred L. Gaddis, Sr.
Succeeded by Fred L. Gaddis, Sr.

Born October 10, 1917
Garyville, St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana
Died September 26, 1995
Jackson, Mississippi
Political party Democrat
Spouse(s) Fay Martin Johnston
Occupation Journalist and spokesman for the

Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

Religion Presbyterian

Erle Ennis Johnston, Jr. (October 10, 1917 – September 26, 1995),[1] was a journalist and politician from Mississippi.


Johnston was born in Garyville in St. John the Baptist Parish in south Louisiana.[2] His father, Erle Johnston, Sr. (1889-1962) and his mother, the former Grace Buchanan (1888-1970), are interred at Rose Hill Cemetery in Brookhaven in Lincoln County in southwestern Mississippi.[3] Erle Johnston, Sr., worked in the lumber industry and moved his wife and two sons, Erle and Bert, to Toledo, Ohio, and thereafter the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, before they settled in 1928 in Grenada in northern Mississippi. Johnston attended Grenada High School, where he played on the baseball team and was a member of the band. He launched the school's first newspaper and while in high school reported part-time for the Grenada Daily-Star. He graduated in 1935 but was unable to meet the expenses of attending college.[2] 

Journalism and political career

In 1937, after a short time as a stringer correspondent for several newspapers, including The Jackson Daily News, The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Johnston became one of eight members of the staff then of The Clarion-Ledger, his state's largest paper. He worked there as state regional editor, political reporter, and editor of petroleum and natural gas issues. He was also the first staff photographer for a Mississippi daily newspaper. In 1941, he bought half interest in the weekly paper,  The Scott County Times in Forest, a small city in Scott County in central Mississippi.[4] In 1942, at the age of twenty-four, Johnston bought out his partner's half interest to become sole owner of The Scott County Times, which thereafter won many awards of excellence from the Mississippi Press Association. In 1949, at the age of thirty-one, Johnston was elected the youngest president thus far of the Mississippi Press Association. He was the only journalist who did not attend college inducted into Sigma Delta Chi, the national journalism fraternity. Johnston served in the United States Army during World War II. While he was in the military from 1945 to 1946, his wife, the former Fay Martin (1919-1999), operated the paper.[2] He remained with The Scott County Times until he sold it 1983.[5]

In 1960, segregationist Governor Ross Barnett appointed Johnston as director of public relations of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency established in 1956 to oppose encroachment on state sovereignty by the United States government. The commission thereafter sought to publicize what it claimed were the advantages to both races of segregation in Mississippi. Civil rights activists opposed the commission. In 1963, Johnston became the executive director of the commission, a position which he filled until 1968, when he resigned from the organization. His service as executive director was principally under the administration of Barnett's successor, Paul Burney Johnson, Jr.[4] Johnston once told an interviewer that the opponents had exaggerated the role of the commission, which he believed had succeeded in "keeping down tension and confrontation."[5]

In 1962, in an address at his alma mater, Grenada High School, Johnston addressed the threat facing school segregation in Mississippi:

The only way we can retain our segregated school system is through the cooperation of the colored race (African Americans). We already have many allies among the colored school teachers, bus drivers, and others who want to preserve their jobs. We can earn the cooperation of others with consideration and recognition and an honest attempt to provide colored citizens with facilities to which they are entitled.

Mississippi needs more white people who will publicly speak out for recognition and consideration without being branded as liberal leftists, and more colored people willing to cooperate without being branded as Uncle Toms.

We can be practical without being radical: we can be realistic without being ridiculous. I have often thought that if the extremists at both ends of this racial situation would quit wildly wagging their tongues, and suspiciously pointing their fingers, we could restore some racial harmony in Mississippi and make better progress.[6]

Johnston criticized the activities of the White Citizens Council but overcame that opposition when he was named the executive director of the sovereignty commission and continued as public relations director as well.[7] The commission was abolished in 1977 in the Cliff Finch administration, four years after Governor Bill Waller vetoed its funding.[8]

Johnston worked in numerous Democratic political campaigns in Mississippi, beginning in 1942 with James Eastland's election to the United States Senate; Eastland was subsequently the long-term chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He worked to elect Martin Sennet Conner and Fielding Wright as governor of Mississippi in 1943 and 1947, respectively; Conner previously served from 1936 to 1940 but lost the gubernatorial race in 1943 to Thomas L. Bailey, who thereafter died in office in 1946. Johnston worked in Hugh L. White's gubernatorial race in 1951, and the renomination of Senator Eastland in the 1954 primary against Carroll Gartin of Laurel, a three-term lieutenant governor who subsequently died in office in 1966. Johnston was Ross Barnett's publicity director in the unsuccessful 1955 race for governor against James P. Coleman and the successful one in 1959 against Carroll Gartin. He also worked for the unpledged elector slate in 1960, which denied the Mississippi electoral vote to both John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. He helped to produce telecasts of the inaugurations of Governors Barnett, Johnson, conservative  John Bell Williams in 1968, and William Waller in 1972.[2]   

From 1981 to 1985, Johnston was the mayor of Forest. In this capacity, he recruited to his city Hughes Aircraft Company and the Sara Lee Corporation. These two companies alone brought thousands of jobs to the area.[4] He was sandwiched between the eight non-consecutive mayoral terms of poultry industrialist Fred L. Gaddis, Sr. (1922-2001).[9]

In 1980, Johnston published I Rolled with Ross, a Political Portrait of Former Governor Ross Barnett. In 1990, he released the 430-page Mississippi's Defiant Years, 1953-1973: An Interpretative Documentary with Personal Experiences, with the foreword by former Governor William F. Winter.[6] Another of his books, Politics: Mississippi Style, was released in 1993.[2] .

Death and legacy

Johnston was active in the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary International, and the Forest Country Club. He was a deacon and Sunday school teacher at the Forest Presbyterian Church and volunteered to assist the Boy Scouts of America and Little League baseball.[2]

Johnston and his wife, Fay, had two daughters, Carol J. Lindley and husband, Robert C. Lindley, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Lynn J. Catalina and husband, Ben Herman Catalina, of San Antonio, Texas; a son, Erle "Bubby" Johnston, III, formerly the public information officer at East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi, and five grandchildren. Johnston died early in the autumn of 1995 at the age of seventy-seven of a heart ailment at St. Dominic's Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi.[5]   In 1992, Johnston was co-chairman of historically black Tougaloo College's Committee on the Preservation of Civil Rights Activities in Madison County, Mississippi. Not long before his death three years later, he organized the fortieth anniversary reunion of the players in the Pasadena Junior Rose Bowl, now the Pasadena Bowl, which was played in 1955 between Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi, and Compton Community College in Compton, California. This was the first time that a white football team from Mississippi played against a racially-integrated team.[2] 

In The Scott County Times, Johnston had covered issues important to black readers both in print and photographs. He once recalled that the civil rights figure Charles Evers of Fayette, Mississippi, was speaking on stage in Forest and pointed to Johnston: "There's Johnston out there. Once he was my enemy, and now he is my friend!"[10]

Johnston's papers were deposited by his family in 1997 at the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg. At the time of his death, Johnston had been writing a book with the tentative title, The Thunder of Elephants in Mississippi: From Bayonets to Ballots, a study of the opposition Republican Party, which after Johnston's death became the majority party in the state.[2]

Erle and Fay Johnston are interred at the Eastern Cemetery in Forest, Mississippi.[1] A street in Forest is named for Johnston.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Erle Ennis Johnston, Jr.. Retrieved on April 13, 206.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Erle E. Johnston, Jr., Papers. Retrieved on April 11, 2016.
  3. Erle Johnston. Retrieved on April 14, 2016.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Johnston, Erle (biography). Retrieved on April 14, 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 E. E. Johnston, 77, Segregation Figure. The New York Times (September 28, 1995). Retrieved on April 14, 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Erle Johnston, Mississippi's Defiant Years, 1953-1973: An Interpretative Documentary with Personal Experiences (Forest, Mississippi: Lake Harbor Publishers, 1990), pp, 137-138.
  7. Erle Johnston, Mississippi's Defiant Years, pp. 189, 228.
  8. Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo. Associated Press (March 18, 1998.). Retrieved on April 14, 2016.
  9. Senate Concurrent Resolution 513. (2002). Retrieved on April 14, 2016.
  10. Erle, Johnston, Mississippi's Defiant Years, p. 407