Former Underground Paper to Host 40th Anniversary Shindig
By Bob Goodman, Special to The Atlanta Progressive News
(May 18, 2008)
(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
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
"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, available at: http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/news/0052.html
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Bird flew high (and so did its readers)
The storied Atlanta 'underground' newspaper celebrates its 40th
birthday with a gathering of the counterculture
By John F. Sugg
"Don't you know about the bird? Well, everybody knows that the bird
is the word."
– "Surfin' Bird," The Trashmen, 1963
The Bird was more than a word. It was hundreds of thousands of words,
now enshrined in 10 volumes of articles, rants, cartoons and photos
tucked away on shelves at the Virginia-Highland home of Stephanie
Coffin. The Bird the Great Speckled Bird was a newspaper, a state
of mind, a beacon of dissent, a cultural marker.
"It was a goddamn stubborn publication," says Neill Herring, the
indefatigable Georgia environmentalist who savors memories of his
youthful days as a Birdfolk. "It was really good at finding stories
in the oddest places. It made Atlanta, hell it made the South, wake
up to the 20th century."
The Bird was born on March 15, 1968, and exploded with success, due
in large part to the huge hippie community that congregated in
Midtown. "One reason we did well was that everybody sold it," recalls
Gene Guerrero, a founder who now works as a lobbyist for criminal
justice reform in Washington, D.C. "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."
Within a half year, the paper went from biweekly to weekly with
22,000 paid circulation. It was a leftist journal that adroitly met
the capitalist test of matching demand with supply. But as the
circulation-driving force of the Vietnam War waned, the paper was
forced in 1976 to reduce itself to a monthly. Then, as Steve Wise,
one of the paper's founders, puts it, "The Bird had its first last
issue in October 1976. We tried to revive it in 1984, but we had the
last last issue in January 1985."
Although a couple of months tardy, the Birdfolk, Bird readers and a
lot of Atlanta's activists, many of whom weren't born when the Bird
last flew, will gather on May 24 to celebrate the newspaper's 40th
birthday. "It could be our last hurrah," sighs Bob Goodman, another founder.
Looking at copies of the Bird today – one disintegrated into dust in
my hands as I opened it (fortunately, Coffin and others have boxes of
old issues) – it's a quick time warp to another era, but one with
many similarities to today. There was a horrible man in the White
House – Tricky Dick then. And there was an unpopular war, the product
of deceitful spin, and the government's wholesale attack on liberties
created national angst.
Thinking people were dismayed by the lies, pandering and timidity of
the mainstream media ("capitalist press" is the general reference in
the Bird), and invented new ways to communicate – today, it's mostly
the Internet; four decades ago it was via "underground" papers, which
became a vital artery for news. For example, investigative reporter
Seymour Hersh, most famous for exposing the My Lai Massacre of
Vietnamese women and children by U.S. soldiers, for years couldn't
get the major media to print his dispatches. Papers such as the Bird
carried the news. Similarly, while the major papers in the South
repeated the smears about activists such as MLK in an effort to
undermine civil rights – that era's version of "fair and balanced"
Faux News reporting – the movement news was a staple of the
in-your-face underground press.
Even the hated corporate media occasionally gave a nod to the Bird.
CBS "60 Minutes" anchor Mike Wallace declared the Bird was "the Wall
Street Journal of the underground press." The Bird was happy for the
mention, but stressed that Wallace referred to the newspaper's
journalistic quality, not its politics.
The FBI didn't concur with Wallace's assessment. Framed on Coffin's
wall is a "confidential" FBI memo that makes it clear Big Brother was
keeping a close eye on the newspaper.
That was because the Bird made the mighty squirm in Atlanta. The
first issue's front page contained a scathing mock obituary for a
then still-alive journalism sacred cow, Constitution Editor Ralph
McGill. The Bird decried McGill's defense of the Vietnam War as
"subtle deceit." The Bird was relentless in attacking the Atlanta
elite and Georgia Power, and in championing issues seldom mentioned
in polite conversation at the Piedmont Driving Club – issues such as
gay rights, unions and women's liberation.
Somewhat oddly, the Bird was also acclaimed for its coverage of
country and western music. Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings and other
greats from the day lauded the newspaper at a time when, as Guerrero
recalls, "country and western singers were treated with about the
same respect as pro wrestlers."
The newspaper's name comes from a traditional song made famous by
country music legend Roy Acuff – the tune quotes from Jeremiah 12:9,
"Mine heritage is unto me as a great speckled bird, the birds 'round
about are against her."
Indeed, Atlanta's civic fowl were aligned against the uppity Bird.
Vendors were hassled by cops, and in one raid 75 Birdfolk were
arrested on charges ranging from "occupying a dive" to "profane
language." The newspaper scoffed, and ran a cover featuring a
gun-toting revolutionary standing in front of a Coca-Cola sign with
the message: "Come and get it, motherfucker." Talk about Atlanta
sacrilege! "That got us in a bit of trouble," Goodman recalls.
Attesting to the Bird's impact, in 1972, the newspaper's offices were
firebombed. No one was ever charged with the crime.
The administration of then-Mayor Sam Massell was a frequent punching
bag. "We went after one scandal after another," Wise recalls.
With that in mind, perhaps the greatest tribute to the Bird comes
from its old nemesis, Massell. "It told the other side of the story,"
recalls the former mayor, who now heads the Buckhead Coalition. "They
were courageous and they faced many adversaries who tried to put them
out of business. They exposed things others failed to cover. All in
all, Atlanta is a better city because it had the Bird."
For more information on the Great Speckled Bird reunion, go to
www.greatspeckledbird.org. Through May 18, the Atlanta-Fulton Public
Library downtown is hosting an exhibit of covers, graphics and
articles from the Great Speckled Bird.
Radical newspaper Great Speckled Bird had heyday in 1970s
By STACY SHELTON
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/18/08
In its first edition 40 years ago, Atlanta's independent newspaper
for the hippie generation took aim at the big kahuna in town and
never backed down.
In a front-page story titled "What's It All About, Ralphie?" The
Great Speckled Bird announced itself with an attack on Ralph McGill,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist of The Atlanta
Constitution who supported the Vietnam War. The early civil rights
advocate had become "a leading exponent of U.S. imperialism and
deception," said the Bird.
Anti-war sentiments fueled the start-up of what became a weekly
newspaper, but the Bird also covered such mind-bending issues as
racism, women's liberation and gay rights. At every turn, it took on
the establishment, from Coca-Cola to Georgia Power to Atlanta city government.
Above all, the Bird was irreverent. Four-letter words, nude photos
and bawdy cartoons routinely spiced up the pages, prompting then-Gov.
Lester Maddox to ban the Bird's vending machines at the State Capitol.
The paper's Midtown office was fire bombed. When its DeKalb printer
refused to print it anymore, staffers had to drive the proofs to the
closest willing printer, in Montgomery.
It all started as a response to what many saw as inadequate coverage
of the issues they cared about in the mainstream press.
"A small group of us felt the local newspaper was so conservative and
so unwilling to take on any truth telling about the war in Vietnam,"
said state Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta), one of the Bird's founders
along with her then husband, Gene Guerrero.
As hundreds of 20- and 30-something activists and free thinkers
gravitated to the newspaper to write, draw, edit, set type, hawk
papers and do odd jobs, the Bird became Atlanta's meeting place for
progressive thought, Orrock said. Staff meetings would last for
hours, a forum for equal-opportunity opinions.
"We were really part of the Tom Paines of our generation," she said.
The Bird reached national prominence in a 1971 television feature by
"60 Minutes," which called it the Wall Street Journal of the
underground press for its journalistic prowess.
It ceased publication in 1976. At one time it was the state's largest
weekly, cresting at a circulation of about 22,000. A comeback attempt
in the 1980s failed.
Orrock is one of the Bird's better known alumna. After a youth spent
working in the civil rights movement on college campuses and
alongside U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) and Julian Bond, she was
elected to the General Assembly in 1986. In 2002, she became the
state's first female majority whip for one term, before Republicans
wrested control of the House in the 2004 elections.
Orrock, 64, has served one term as a state senator and is up for
re-election this year. She is president of the national Women
Legislators' Lobby, a program of Women's Action for New Direction
that lobbies for redirecting military spending toward domestic
programs including health care and environmental protection.
The Bird can count at least one other elected official among its
alumnae, Doyle Nieman. He is a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly.
Many others are active in the political process. Guerrero, Orrock's
former husband, led the Georgia branch of the American Civil
Liberties Union for 16 years and now lobbies for criminal justice
reforms in Washington. Former staffer Neill Herring, who started at
the Bird while attending Georgia State University, is now the chief
political strategist and a leading lobbyist for the state's
Herring, 60, who lives in south Georgia, said the Bird taught him he
could either make money or do good. He became a carpenter, working in
Atlanta from 1968 to 1985.
"I decided that I would never make a whole lot of money and I would
try to do the right thing," Herring said. "I made my money as a
carpenter but spent most of my intellectual energy on political work."
Most of the Bird's "audacious band of young people," as Orrock called
them, continued along the same ideological path they started down,
former staffer Bob Goodman of Decatur said. One alumnus is a lawyer
who defends conscientious objectors opposed to the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan; another is a Native American activist in Oklahoma; and
another is a labor organizer in New York.
Goodman, who retired from a series of jobs that included counseling
low-income pregnant women, spends every Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. in
front of CNN with the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, protesting
the war in Iraq with signs that say things like "Bring the troops
home now" and "Healthcare not warfare."
"I really look back on the Bird as one of the best times of my life,"
said Goodman, 67. "It was just a group of people without much money
that started this newspaper on a shoestring which appealed to a whole
lot of people and made a lot of waves and hung on for eight and a
half years. It introduced Atlanta to new ideas."