Academic journal article Journalism History

The Past as Persuader in the Great Speckled Bird

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Past as Persuader in the Great Speckled Bird

Article excerpt

We have our own history now, different from but parallel to American history. Our strength may be judged, past and future, by how much our history becomes American history.1

The Great Speckled Bird, April 12, 1971

In March 1968, a group of antiwar activists in Atlanta, Georgia, launched an underground newspaper, The Great Speckled Bird, named for a folk song.2 The purpose was to provide a political alternative to the mainstream Atlanta Constitution, and more.3 As cofounder Tom Coffin explained in the inaugural issue: "Were here, as they say, to do our thing. Which being: to bitch and badger, carp and cry, and perhaps give Atlanta (and environs, 'cause we're growing baby) a bit of honesty and interesting and, we trust, even readable journalism."4 The Bird would do its thing for nearly nine years, "one of the longest running and highest quality underground newspapers of the era."5 Founded by graduate students, young professors, and former VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) workers, the newspaper's staff was highly educated compared with those at other underground publications, according to Douglas E. Gordon, a fact that likely added to its success and surrounding contention. Sally Gabb, a writer at The Bird, recalled the early staffers: "Budding historians and philosophers they were, mostly men, with women in the shadows, women on the brink of bursting forth to be heard. They were men and women joined by a certain lesson: the South."6

Gordon has written about how The Bird was harassed during the entirety of its run, including the firebombing of its office in 1972.7 Given its location in the conservative South, such harassment is not surprising-the newspaper took a leftist perspective not just on the war in Vietnam, but also on civil rights, women's reproductive rights, and gay liberation, to name a few. Its aim was to persuade, and it used many of the tools embraced by the era's radical press to do so. This study is concerned with its use of history. Editors and writers at The Bird understood the importance of history, both their movement's place in the American narrative, and their newspaper's role in correcting the mainstream historical record. This study considers how The Great Speckled Bird used history as a tool for persuasion during its run, 1968-1976. It seeks to add to our understanding of the symbiotic relationship between journalism and history, and of the dissident press of the 1960s and 1970s. In doing so it also offers a tiny window into Southern counterculture of the era.

The Great Speckled Bird grew out of a small, but hardy antiwar movement in Georgia, which itself had grown out of the civil rights movement.8 Like many in the American underground, The Bird's editors and writers eschewed working within the political system for change, based on their "distrust of Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic Party, and politics in general," according to Donald Summerlin, and they believed that publishing an underground newspaper could accomplish more than participating in other, more radical antiwar activities.9 Indeed, activist and cofounder Gene Guerrero said he devoted much time and energy to the paper in lieu of the antiwar protests, which had gotten "too crazy" for his taste.10 The newspaper did support antiwar activity, including publicizing demonstrations, and it also served as a sounding board for the hippie community in Atlanta." The Bird was connected both politically and culturally with the movement. In a 1975 retrospective, J.D. Cade wrote: "The BIRD did not create the Atlanta hippie scene, nor did the latter create the BIRD. Yet, they struggled against some of the same powers, hand-in-hand. At the same time they often were in conflict with each other-politics vs. lifestyle."12 Laurence Learner noted in 1972 that the newspaper "sought to create a uniquely Southern radicalism based as much as anything on dormant populist tradition and directed primarily at a student audience."13

"throughout its run, The Bird published complaints about police harassment, including against members of its sales staff who hawked copies on the street. …

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