On June 2, former staff members, sellers, readers and fellow travelers of “The Great Speckled Bird,” an “underground” newspaper from the 1960s and 1970s, will gather in Atlanta to celebrate its 50-year anniversary.
Published in Atlanta, the paper was one of several underground publications that appeared in the United States during the late 1960s, according to the Georgia State University Library.
It covered a range of topics, including national and local politics, music and art, while also giving exposure to counterculture issues and opinions. Some of the topics its reporters would focus on included women’s issues, gay liberation, civil rights and reproductive choices – all radical opinions for a Southern paper of the time.
The paper, often referred to as just “The Bird,” started at Emory University in 1968, led by New Left activists Tom and Stephanie Coffin, who worked with students from other colleges, political activists from the Southern Student Organizing Committee, VISTA and other organizations.
Though the paper began as a most 8-page black-and-white biweekly, it quickly grew to weekly, in-color publications and reached a circulation of 22,000 in 1970, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Its pages also provided space for local artists, photographers, poets and more in an effort to elevate voices that were “too progressive or too controversial for the corporate media,” according to the paper’s press release.
“The Bird” even featured interviews with both Georgia musicians like the Allman Brothers and the Hampton Grease Band and nationally-known performers, including Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Earl Scruggs.
With staunch positions, such as criticizing Atlanta icon Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for his support of the Vietnam War or targeting Cox Media and Coca-Cola, the paper was known for its unwavering authenticity. Its covers often showcased its stances most prominently.
Eventually, the paper was banned in Savannah and Macon and then-governor Lester Maddox banned “’Bird’ vending machines” at the state Capitol. Some high schools and even colleges suspended students who brought copies to school.
The paper eventually earned a national reputation, with Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” even calling the paper “the Wall Street Journal of the underground press.” Historian Howard Zinn also said “the story of The Great Speckled Bird is an important unknown piece of movement history.”
Although the paper has faced many obstacles, including obscenity charges, being dropped by its first printer and having its office firebombed, “The Bird” never missed an issue for over eight years. It eventually stopped publication in 1976.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia says the paper “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.”
According to a press release, the anniversary of the paper will be celebrated tomorrow from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. at the Chosewood Ballroom, 420 McDonough Blvd. SE, Atlanta 30315.
Part of the celebration will include a program titled “Media Then and Now,” which begins at 5 p.m., featuring speakers including:
- Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!”, award-winning investigative journalist and a champion of independent progressive media
- Hamilton Nolan, formerly with Gawker, now a senior writer for Splinter News
- “The Bird” veterans, including co-founder State Senator Nan Grogan Orrock, and former Black Panther Party member Tim Hayes
The event is open to the public.