Former Underground Paper to Host 40th Anniversary Shindig
By Bob Goodman, Special to The Atlanta Progressive News
(APN) ATLANTA — Former staff members, sellers, readers, and supporters of The Great Speckled Bird newspaper, Atlanta’s radical, freaky, underground paper of the 1960’s and 70’s, will gather Saturday, May 24, 2008, for a 40th anniversary celebration.
The “BirdBlast,” which is open to the public, will be from 2 to 10 p.m. at the B Complex, 1272 Murphy Avenue SW.
Hundreds from Metro Atlanta and around the country are expected for the event, the first Bird get-together since the paper’s 20th anniversary party in 1988, Stephanie Coffin, a Bird cofounder said.
The event will include exhibits of Bird graphics and articles, organized by themes; speakers; live music; jugglers; fire sculptures; and more. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now radio program will speak at 5 pm. Bird alumna State Senator Nan Orrock and other former staffers will also speak.
Proceeds from the event will benefit WRFG 89.3 FM radio and The Atlanta Progressive News website, which are carrying on the tradition of independent media in Atlanta.
As an appetizer for the main event, an exhibit of Bird covers, graphics, and articles are on display from May 5, 2008, through May 18, at the Fulton County Public Library, Main Branch, located in downtown Atlanta, on the fourth floor.
The Bird grew out of an anti-Vietnam War newsletter published in 1967 by a group of New Left activists at Emory University which included Coffin and her husband, Tom.
To reach a wider audience, they joined forces with students from other local colleges, and political activists from the Southern Student Organizing Committee, VISTA, and other organizations.
The Bird chirped for the first time in March 1968.
From its modest beginnings as an 8-page black and white bi-weekly, The Bird bulked up quickly. Color was soon added. Weekly publication began in September 1968. Within a couple of years, the average Bird was 28 to 32 pages. By 1970, with a circulation of 22,000, it was the largest-circulation weekly in Georgia.
For over 8 years, The Bird provided a progressive alternative voice to existing Atlanta media, supporting civil rights, free speech, draft resistance, liberation for women and homosexuals, youth culture, plus the struggles of workers, Blacks, students, and anti-war GIs.
It was an unwavering foe of the Vietnam War, US militarism, and repressive mainstream culture. Its pages also provided space for local artists, photographers and poets, local theater and concert reviews, and interviews with Georgia musicians like the Allman Brothers and the Hampton Grease Band.
The paper set the tone in its premiere issue with a broadside attack on Atlanta icon, Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (AJC), “What’s It All About, Ralphie?,” for his support of the Vietnam War.
Nor were other Atlanta sacred cows spared: A cover targeting Coca-Cola resulted in obscenity charges (later dropped). Investigative articles pilloried Georgia Power, the Cox media empire, Atlanta Housing Authority, slumlords, and corruption in the Massell Administration.
From the first issue, The Bird’s radical politics, coverage of hippie culture, nude photos, uncensored prose, and occasional scatological cartoons outraged conservative Georgians.
It was banned in Savannah and Macon, Georgia, and Governor Lester Maddox banned Bird vending machines at the State Capitol. Some high schools and even colleges suspended students who brought copies to school.
But the paper was eagerly embraced by many progressive activists and youth, a steady stream of whom left their small towns for the big city. For many young newcomers, their first stop in Atlanta was the Bird house on 14th Street, where they could pick up a stack of papers to sell on the streets and expressway entrances to pay for their next meal.
The Bird soon gained a national reputation as one of the best of the many underground papers which were springing up around the country.
Mike Wallace of CBS’s 60 Minutes television program, who interviewed Bird staff in Atlanta, called the paper “the Wall Street Journal of the underground press,” a reference to its journalistic quality, not its politics.
“The story of The Great Speckled Bird is an important unknown piece of Movement history,” historian Howard Zinn recently said.
Despite its reputation elsewhere, The Bird was harassed at home by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, City government, Atlanta Police Department, and local businesses.
It was charged with obscenity and “inciting to riot” and subjected to politically-motivated building and fire inspections.
Bird street sellers were arrested for panhandling, obstructing traffic, and selling without a permit. Thanks to vigorous legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union, and strong community support, none of the charges against The Bird nor its sellers stuck, and the paper never lost a case in court.
When the paper’s first printer, the DeKalb New Era press, dropped The Bird because of political pressure, the nearest printer the paper could find was in Montgomery, Alabama, 160 miles away.
In 1973, The Bird’s office at 240 Westminster Drive was firebombed after a series of articles on the Massell administration’s lack of housing code enforcement.
In spite of these obstacles, The Bird persevered and never missed an issue for 8 and half years, not even after the firebombing.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia summed it up: “During its eight-year existence, The Great Speckled Bird symbolized and spoke for the New Left and counterculture in Georgia and the Deep South. It maintains a place of significance in the story of America’s underground newspapers.”
More information is available at www.greatspeckledbird.org
APN ran a feature on the history of the Great Speckled Bird in May 2006.
About the author:
Bob Goodman is a special correspondent for Atlanta Progressive News. He is a former staffer of the Great Speckled Bird newspaper and an activist with the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, Atlanta chapter. He may be reached at email@example.com
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