Cities: Athens

North Georgia's Alternative Press

Nontraditional publications, also known as the underground press or the alternative news, played pivotal roles in the event coverage and the understanding of social change during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Not intended to court mainstream readers, or to explore mainstream ideas, alternative papers filled a void in the media by giving voice to the disenfranchised and disenchanted. They also provided citizens on the fringe of, or in opposition to, popular opinion the opportunity to criticize, challenge and contemplate the established power structure. Georgia publications, such as the Athens Observer and Atlanta’s the Great Speckled Bird, proved no different.

The Athens Observer first came off the press on January 3, 1974, financed by Charles “Chuck” Searcy, Rollin McCommons, and Don Nelson. Began as an eight-page, free circulation tabloid, the Observer was not conceived as an act of political protest but did come about after Searcy and McCommons were arrested during a sit-in in the office of Fred Davison, president of The University of Georgia.Disturbed by their perception that the media gave their trial unfair coverage, the two decided to start their own newspaper, although neither had any real journalism experience.

With an initial offering of ten thousand copies, the Observer mixed slice-of-life reporting with contributions from community readers. The resulting stories—a mix of  left- and right-leaning commentaries—soon attracted readers on the University campus and across Athens. Based in a college town, The Observer depended upon a pool of writing talent from the University, including many writers willing to work for free. Given the hard time the independent publication had in securing advertising dollars to run, there was mutual benefit in being able to have good work for no or low cost.

The legacy of The Observer lies in its firm and successful stance to counter the traditional press in Athens. It dared to present a variety of views and sources in different forms to produce a broader public consciousness. Never overtly militant or politically biased, The Observer was viewed as a public forum where the entire spectrum of Athens thought—from the liberal UGA student to the conservative homeowner—could find its way to light. In 1984, McCommons, who had stayed with The Observer from the beginning, went on to serve as publisher and editor of Flagpole, Athens’s current alternative weekly.

The Great Speckled Bird began publishing March 15, 1968, providing readers with socially-progressive news and commentary about America's counterculture. Founded by five pairs of students at Georgia colleges (including Nan Orrock, and Anne and Howard Romaine) the paper was a weekly, unabashedly New Left publication that many have cited as an influence and example to the long-lived student movement in Georgia. Distributed throughout Georgia and the Southeast, at its height, the Great Speckled Bird (named after a country gospel song) printed twenty thousand copies each week. It is said to have connected the activists in the student movement both inside and outside of the metropolitan Atlanta area.

At times Marxist, Leninist, even socialist, the thirty-six page paper included a variety of leftist viewpoints in both its traditional news stories, poetry, freeform and stream-of-consciousness pieces. Like many alternative publications, the Bird did not shy away from controversy, nor was it well-received by those conservatives and traditionalists who opposed many of the it championed or seemed to endorse. Writers spoke out against Atlanta mayor Sam Massell (1970-1974), attacked the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company, questioned the Vietnam War, championed Women’s Rights Movements and supported the struggle for civil rights--all in brazen, no-holds-barred ways. The outspokenness did not come without repercussions.

In June 1969, the Bird's business manager, Gene Guerrero, and three paper vendors were charged by the Atlanta police with selling obscene literature to minors and violating the city’s profanity ordinance. Although the charges were later dismissed, this legal action made it clear that the work of the alternative paper could not be dismissed. Other opponents would retaliate against such alternative papers. For example, in May 1972, the Bird offices, then located at 240 Westminster Drive, were firebombed in the middle of the night. Most of the house was destroyed, including back issues of the paper. No one was ever arrested for the crime. Many decried the bombing, and the paper held benefits and accepted donations in order to continue to publish, which it did until 1976. While several attempts have been made to revive the Great Speckled Bird, none have been as successful as its first-run, which is archived at the Woodruff Library at Emory University.

Despite their pivotal role, alternative publications are usually viewed as “before their time.” Advertisers find them too radical to support, and thus many of the papers, including the Observer and the Bird, struggled to stay financially afloat to keep their watchdog reporting and commentary in readers’ hands. Yet they were important for their willingness to publish stories and cover issues that many mainstream publications were too afraid or unwilling to print. The alternative press can be seen as an outlet for the social movements that changed America. Writers, publishers, and supporters of the alternative publications were at the forefront of the new wave of courageous thinkers and doers of the twentieth century. Their work put on paper the ideals, the issues, and the ire that would shape the country, challenge public opinion, and catalyze people to action.

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Discussion Questions

1. Read the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. How do alternative publications contribute to the meanings of freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment? Why is there a need for alternative presses?

2. Like civil rights activists, alternative press publishers and reporters faced opposition and potential violence at the hands of those resistant to social change. Why would opponents take such measures toward the alternative press? How do the firebombings of churches and homes of activists--for example, the September 15, 1963, explosions at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the bombing of the home of the Reverend Dr. King--compare to those of alternative presses?

3. Both the mainstream and alternative media played large roles in exposing the realities of violence against nonviolent activists, as exemplified by the work of Danny Lyon, the first official photographer for SNCC. Given the nonviolent nature of the Civil Rights Movement, how effective was violence, either toward activists or discriminatory institutions, in undermining the demonstrators' ideals and goals of social equality?

Take it to the Streets!

Visit the University of Connecticut Libraries' online exhibit entitled Voices from the Underground: Radical Protest and the Underground Press in the "Sixties."  Study the image gallery featuring newspaper covers, and the discussions of the roles the alternative press played in the youth movement, women's activism, anti-war protests, and Civil Rights Movement.  Spend a week or several days assembling an alternative paper, online or offline, in your class.  Decide on a community or national issue to discuss, and desginate groups of students to compose articles, editorials, and art around this theme. 

Select a theme from the list below. Write an essay of 2-3 pages comparing reportage on this theme in an alternative newspaper to that of a mainstream newspaper. Or, select an article from the mainstream press on one of these themes. Then write a 2-3 page article on that subject from the perspective of an alternative press. If time permits, ask students to share their essays by reading them to the class.

The War in Iraq
Latino Immigration
Abortion
Islam
2008 Presidential Election and candidates
Hip-hop music
American healthcare system
Global warming and climate change
Standardized testing in schools
Steroid usage in professional sports

Writer: Kamille Bostick
Editor: Professor Barbara McCaskill
Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill 
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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