Born in Winona, Mississippi, in 1904, George Alonzo McLean attended Davidson College before receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of Mississippi in 1926. In 1928 he earned a master's degree of divinity from the Boston Theological Seminary at Boston University. He did graduate work at Stanford University and the University of Chicago in psychology and sociology. McLean served brief teaching tenures at Adrian College in Michigan and at Southwestern College (Rhodes) in Memphis, the latter from which he was ousted after organizing African-American tenant farmers in the Arkansas delta.
On June 1, 1934, McLean bought the Tupelo Journal (later renamed the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal), a publication which he headed until his death in 1983. From the Journal's helm, McLean launched his career as an activist-publisher, playing an integral role in the transformation and development of Tupelo and communities within Lee County — pushing for economic progress, agricultural diversification, and general improvement of the lives of all local citizens. Tupelo’s success story can largely be credited to McLean’s vision that the prosperity of city bankers and business leaders was directly connected to the success of outlying rural areas. To achieve this end, McLean was instrumental in establishing several community development programs and organizations, including the Rural Community Development Program; Community Development Foundation; Lift Inc., a local Community Action Agency that provided Head Start and other services; a reading aide program begun with Journal capital that evolved into a model for statewide teacher aide program; the CREATE Foundation; and the Tupelo IDEA Center.
In addition to programs and organization he created, McLean also served his community and the state on numerous boards and committees, including as chairman of HOPE (Highways Our Pressing Emergency); Governor Waller’s Quality Education Committee; the Board of the Journal Publishing Company; Community Enterprises, Inc.; and Community Warehouse Corporation; as director of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Authority; member of the board of directors of the Regional Rehabilitation Center; as a member of Governor Waller’s Highway Advisory Committee and the State Advisory Committees of the Small Business Administration, Farmer’s Home Administration, Planning Commission of the City of Tupelo.
McLean was recognized as Nation Magazine's Man of the Year 1937 with Supreme Court Justice Brandeis and Wisconsin's Robert LaFollett, Progressive Farmer's 1948 "Man of the Year" in Mississippi agriculture; as the first recipient of the Tennessee Valley Authority's "Distinguished Citizen" award; and as the first recipient of Tupelo Civilian Club's annual "Outstanding Citizen" award. He was selected for the University of Mississippi's Hall of Fame and The University of Mississippi's Journalism Department also honored McLean by selecting him as the 1963 recipient of the "Silver Em" award for outstanding journalistic achievement. In addition, Adrian College awarded him an honorary doctorate for his lifetime accomplishments.
During Mississippi’s controversial and troubled passage through the Civil Rights Movement, McLean is credited by historians and biographers as a voice of reason and progress. His focus to improve Tupelo’s education system and economy helped the city escape many of the scars of racial conflict that marred so many Mississippi towns. McLean and his editor-in-chief Harry Rutherford used the pages of the Journal to take numerous stands in explosive issues during the period, including school integration and the Ole Miss/Meredith crisis, the summer of 1964, and the role of segregationist politicians of the era. Historians credit Tupelo’s relatively peaceable integration of the public schools in 1966 to the Journal and McLean’s influence.
The George McLean Collection in the University of Mississippi's Department of Archives & Special Collections contains numerous documents, letters, photographs, and other materials related to the life and work of this significant Mississippian.
George McLean died on March 1, 1983, and the image featured below is taken from the program for his funeral service at Tupelo's First Presbyterian Church. McLean's commitment to social responsibility is apparent in this statement from his eulogy: