July 22, 2014
The Wall Street Journal of the Underground Press
by Mark Krotov
Here’s an embarrassing story. About a month into college thesis research, I made a stunning breakthrough: I did not know how to do college thesis research. Had I been writing a thesis on the subject of irony, this situation would have been marvelously apropos—even hilarious! But unfortunately, I was not writing a thesis on irony.
What had transformed me—an otherwise functional human being—into someone unable to perform the basic task of academic research?
I blame advertising.
For my thesis, I spent weeks reading through African magazines from the 50s and 60s, and every time I’d encounter a useful piece of information, I’d immediately ignore it in favor of a particularly revealing advertisement. Why read the relevant article when I could gaze at an ad for a correspondence college in Johannesburg, or for Kingsway, “West Africa’s most modern stores”? This happened again and again, and, as I said, proved to be a wildly unsuccessful research strategy.
I was reminded of this misallocation of resources (temporal, mental) when I stumbled upon the archives of The Great Speckled Bird, an influential underground newspaper that was published in Atlanta from 1968 to 1976. Atlanta may not come to mind as an epicenter of radicalism, but in the late 60s and early 70s, it had a thriving counterculture, and the Bird, whose circulation reached 23,000 at its peak, published articles on everything from the Vietnam War to gay liberation. In a 1971 episode of 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace called the paper “the Wall Street Journal of the underground press.”
The Great Speckled Bird was obsessively democratic in its organization—everyone on staff rotated jobs every few months—and it even lifted the financial fortunes of its target audience: as founder Gene Guerrero told Creative Loafing a few years ago, “Kids were coming to Atlanta, many of them running away from home. They could stop by the Bird office, pick up a bundle, sell the papers and pay for their first meal in Atlanta.”
The story of The Great Speckled Bird seems to mirror the larger upheavals chronicled by the paper. The Bird’s editors and writers were committed to pissing off business leaders and undermining corrupt politicians—a stance that didn’t exactly endear the paper to the city’s elite—and the paper’s staff and street vendors were subjected to regular harassment and arrests. And worse: in 1972, the Bird’s offices were firebombed, destroying archives, artwork, and production equipment. In spite of all this chaos (and perhaps, in part, fueled by it), The Great Speckled Bird endured for eight years without once missing an issue.
The back issues of the Bird provide an extraordinary window into the recent past, and I encourage you to spend many hours reading through them. (With its articles on police brutality, medical care defunding, CIA overreach, and abortion rights, the February 27, 1975 issue alone makes a strong case for historical continuity.) I’d further suggest that you start with the advertisements, some of which are collected below, and all of which are fascinating. Looking through old publications’ ads, it turns out, is a fine activity—just as long as you’re not facing a looming thesis deadline.
Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.