The Underground Press: Exactly What the Founding Fathers Intended

For those who asked, below is the text of the keynote talk I gave on Friday March 27 at the “Digital Scholarship and Radicalism Studies” symposium at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. The symposium coincided with the launch of MSU’s Studies in Radicalism Online (SIRO), a new thematic node of the Advanced Research Consortium, in partnership with Michigan State University Libraries and the Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

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In the late sixties and early seventies, I was a hitchhiker. I hitchhiked not only around town but to all ends of the country. Everywhere I went, I met folks who either were on their local underground newspapers or read one on a regular basis.

I met ex-cons working on Penal Digest International, a prisoners’ rights paper in Iowa City. I hitchhiked to a women’s liberation march in DC with five women from Lansing who all read Her-self, a women’s paper out of Ann Arbor. In 1972, I hitchhiked to Madison and stayed with a staffer for their paper, Takeover, who I met through their local crash pad file, and I helped the local Yippies organize a Smoke-In. Later, after they bailed me out of jail following a street demonstration, I drove down to Miami with them to organize against the Democrats and Republicans, who both held their nominating conventions there that summer. While there I contributed a piece to the Daily Planet and worked with the Underground Press Syndicate. Everywhere I went, I met gays and lesbians who tried to convert me to their agenda, which was basically “Live and let live.” They had their favorite papers that emerged after the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, including Gay Liberator in Detroit, Gay Sunshine in San Francisco, and Fag Rag in Boston.

In my foreword to the first edition of Voices from the Underground I wrote:

The period was a vision as much as a reality. It was a time of experimentation. We made mistakes and learned from them. In the beginning, men attacked sexism while women typed their articles. In the end, women founded the feminist and lesbian press and men learned that it was okay to cry. For all its faults, the sixties was a magical period. A time warp opened up and those who stepped inside glimpsed the new paradigm that brought together the best visions of the visionaries and showed us, on a small scale, how to make them work. On the pages of the underground press, writers tried to reduce the vision to the written word and apply the strategies to a larger scale. Those who were touched remain touched.

It was a fleeting vision for sure. We were offered the fruits of so many liberation movements to harvest that it’s no mystery why there was a return to the land. But not everybody embraced the changes. The period divided and traumatized our country like no period since the civil war.

By the time the period came to an end, roughly the time the war ended, activists of the antiwar movement had turned inward and embraced the Me Decade. Meanwhile, the country swung dramatically to the right. Vietnam was pretty much written out of history. Few high school or college courses studied it honestly.

By the time I published the first edition of Voices from the Underground in 1993, we were living in Reagan’s America. The country had shifted so dramatically to the right, veterans of the antiwar movement, who were now having children and looking for career jobs, were scared to talk about their experiences, even with their kids, even though they had proudly been part of the broadest, most diverse antiwar movement in the history of our country. Those who wrote their stories with me displayed courage.

Today the underground press is becoming better known, though it has not nearly reached the level of recognition that accurate history requires. Scholars like John McMillian (Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America) and James Lewes (Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers during the Vietnam War) are writing dissertations on it and publishing them. James, in fact, is the world expert on the GI underground press as well as a major supporter of the underground press digital project I spoke about in the last session. Young librarians like Suzanne Parenti Sink (from Florida Atlantic University) and Laurie Charnigo (from Jacksonville State University) are compiling major collections for their libraries and speaking about the underground press at conferences.

So what was the underground press?

The underground press was the independent, noncorporate, antiwar alternative to the corporate press of the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras. The traditional history of the underground press focuses on the Los Angeles Free Press, which was founded in 1964, as being the first underground paper of what was known as the counterculture. It might have been.

But in my vision and based on my work, I’ve expanded the term to include the papers of the liberation movements, whose roots often go back earlier. Major gay and lesbian papers came out of the fifties: ONE, Mattachine Review, The Ladder. The first lesbian paper of our era, Vice Versa, goes back even further, to 1947. Important black papers also pre-dated the Free Press. The Student Voice, the paper of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), began publishing in 1960. Freedomways, founded by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, began the next year. Paul Robeson founded his paper, Freedom, during the Korean War.

All of these papers already are or will be, by the way, in Reveal Digital’s digital collection.

But these papers were sporadic. After the Free Press, and thanks to the advanced technology of offset printing, underground papers in tabloid format focusing on the antiwar movement and the emerging counterculture and its related liberation movements flourished. They were found everywhere you looked: on campus and off, in urban, suburban, rural, ghetto, barrio, and other communities in every state of the Union and in countries around the world. They represented the gay, lesbian, feminist, black, Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian American, prisoners’ rights, military, New Age, socialist, anarchist, psychedelic, high school, senior citizen, rank and file, Southern consciousness, and other alternative voices of the day. They were found in every branch of the military—over 900 GI underground papers—and their stories are represented in Voices from the Underground. They spoke to their own unique audiences. But they were united against the war.

Many of them were members of Underground Press Syndicate, the first nationwide network of underground papers. Among the first five members was East Lansing’s own The Paper, whose story is told by founder Michael Kindman in volume 2 of my four-volume Voices from the Underground Series, which is the updated and expanded second edition of my earlier book. Original copies of The Paper can be read downstairs in MSU’s special collections library.

The underground press was such a major, all-encompassing part of my life in the early seventies that I still find it hard to believe that not everyone knows about its role in ending the war. But today when I talk about it with young folks who are the age now that we were then, who I call our intergenerational peers, I get blank stares.

It’s no surprise. Students since the war ended still are seldom taught the truth about the Vietnam War. History classes too often still gloss over it while ignoring the role of the antiwar movement in bringing it to an end. Journalism classes still traditionally ignore or downplay the place of the underground press in the history of journalism. And now our own Pentagon is preparing to launch a ten-year retrospective celebration of the Vietnam War, ostensibly to honor the vets but in reality another effort to whitewash our true history and glorify the military and continued militarism.

Today, political blogs have taken up the tradition that we carried on in the fifties through the eighties but most young bloggers themselves have no idea of their political roots. One of the best sites, in my opinion, is Daily Kos. “Kos” is Markos Moulitsas, who founded it. So I wrote to Markos and asked him to write a foreword to volume 1 as a way to link our generations. I sent him a few sample chapters. He wrote back to me and said, “Ken, I’d love to but—I have to admit—I don’t know anything about the underground press.” I said, “I know that, Markos. I read your last book. You don’t even mention it.”

But I wasn’t criticizing Markos. He’s a college graduate, even has a law degree. But he never learned about the underground press. I told him that’s why I wrote to him. I said I wanted him to write from the perspective of someone who had just discovered his own political predecessor. He agreed and he wrote a remarkable piece.

When the first edition of Voices was coming out, Art Levin, who was the general manager of MSU’s State News during the time I wrote for Joint Issue, the Lansing-area underground paper (also found in the special collections library), wrote:

The period of the late sixties and early seventies was a high water mark for American journalism. For the first time in American history, the vision of Justices Holmes and Brandeis blossomed and bore fruit. A multitude of voices, the essence of democracy, resounded through the land providing a compelling alternative against the stifling banality of the establishment press. What this nation had during the Vietnam War was exactly what the founding fathers understood the press to be all about when they wrote the First Amendment.

Since those days, it’s been a personal mission of mine, I admit, to make sure that that history is not forgotten and to educate others on how they can learn more about it to prevent future Vietnams from happening. So I’m grateful for this opportunity to say something about how I do my research on the underground press. There’s no magic source that contains everything you want to know.

I don’t know how many of you know this but MSU Library has—or at least had 25 years ago—one of the great collections of telephone books. I don’t know if anyone even uses them still—I seldom do. But back then they were essential. After I compiled my initial list of papers whose histories I wanted to include in Voices from the Underground, I came right here—I was already living in Ann Arbor but I remembered the incredible job special collections library director Janet Fiore had done collecting underground papers in the seventies. I spent a day looking through those papers and writing down names of staff members, which was not always an easy task—and still won’t be. In those days, we often used pseudonyms, or first names only, or we didn’t sign our names at all—“confronting our egos” was a major issue among some of us.

Then I went up to the phone book collection, found the city, and looked up all the staff names. If I found a match, I would call the person and ask if he or she had been on the paper. If the answer was yes, I would explain my project and ask if that person could write the history. More often than not, I was referred to someone else, and then someone else. I made lots of phone calls—and rang up quite a bill—but I found everyone I wanted to find.

Today you look up that information on the web. Everyone is there, and usually their contact information. Or, if not, you can find them through online researching. Type in the title of a paper, using quotes, and look at every entry. Write down names that come up and then do creative keyword searches on the names. Write down additional names that come up along the way and search them. Write down names of children and spouses because a lot of the folks you want to find are not with us on this plane anymore, including several contributors to Voices from the Underground, but you can find their obituaries. When I was working with them, I told them, “Tell me everything: names, quotes, anecdotes, headtrips, analyses. Because you’re gonna die. And when you die, your story will be told by others, with their interpretations.” They listened to me and gave me the greatest collection of stories I’ve ever had the honor to edit.

Two excellent online sources that I’ve used successfully to connect to underground press veterans are Facebook and LinkedIn though neither usually lists contact information. With Facebook, write a private message to the person you want to meet. You have plenty of room to state your query though be sure to request an email address if you’re planning on having an ongoing conversation. While you’re at it, look at their list of friends to find others who may be on your to-locate list. With LinkedIn, you need to connect to communicate. LinkedIn always provides you with a generic invitation to connect. Revise it to be more specific—though you have to be concise so as not to exceed the character limit.

The Alternative Press Center has been collecting and indexing underground and alternative papers since the sixties. Their papers for the most part may be found at the University of Maryland. But there are special collections libraries all over the country and the world that contain original copies of underground papers beginning with our amazing collection downstairs in this building. I was friends with Peter Berg since before he took over as director from Janet Fiore. I ran the streets and organized with comic book maven Randy Scott—his name, in fact, appears in my history of the Lansing-area underground press that’s found in volume 1 of my series. They and the others members of the special collections team will give you whatever guidance you need.

There have been some excellent books written about the underground press. Abe Peck, himself an underground press historian as well as the former editor of Chicago Seed and a contributor to Voices from the Underground, wrote an overview of some of the best, dividing them interestingly by generations of books based on when they came out. You can find their titles in his article, “The Life and Times of the Underground Press,” which appeared online in Logos in 2013.

A history of the gay press, not mentioned in Abe’s article, is Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America by Rodger Streitmatter.

To find other underground press veterans check out the Facebook page for Underground Press Syndicate – Media History and post a comment.

The political blog Rag Blog is the digital successor to the Austin Rag, one of the first ten members of Underground Press Syndicate. Its editor, Thorne Dreyer, was an Austin Rag editor also. Underground press veterans are regular contributors, including me.

There already is no better digital collection of underground, alternative, and literary newspapers and magazines from the fifties through the eighties than Independent Voices, the digital collection that I’ve been creating at Reveal Digital, and we’re not finished with it. Check it out now at voices.revealdigital.com and view what we have so far of what will be, by the end of January 2017, approximately one million pages of keyword-searchable exact digital reproductions of these publications. MSU is not only a sourcing library—which means they have actively loaned us original copies of underground papers from their special collections library for us to scan and digitize—but they’re also a supporting library, so they’ve put down the bucks so that you can all use the digital collection for your research and enjoyment even before it goes into open access, which is our ultimate goal.

So far we’ve uploaded about 200,000 pages, mostly from our women’s, GI, literary, and underground press titles. We’re starting to add the minority papers including El Renacimiento and Sol de Aztlan from Lansing. Other Lansing-area papers that are on board: The Paper, Goob Yeak Gergibal, Generation, Bogue Street Bridge, Joint Issue, Lansing Star, People’s Voice, Lansing Beat, and Lesbian Connection. And, facing the deadline of this talk, I speeded up my own rights-acquisition work and am now about to bring on board two other papers that were still missing: The Spectacle and Grapevine Journal.

And network. Attend conferences and other major events that bring together academics and left activists. Two conferences where I will be speaking in upcoming months:

  • And a third major event where I’ll be speaking: The Berkeley Barb, one of the legendary underground papers of the era, also part of the digital collection, is having its 50th anniversary reunion on Wednesday-Thursday August 12-13 in Berkeley.

Everyone you talk to, ask, “Who else do you know who I can contact? Who else worked on your paper? Do you have an email and phone number? What other papers did you work on? Who else worked on them?” Pick one paper and write its history. That will be a major contribution to our understanding of the era.

In the sixties, we discovered philosopher George Santayana, who said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yippie Abbie Hoffman added, “The only way to support a revolution is to make your own.” So we studied the first wave of feminism from the 1800s, the anarchists at the turn of the last century, the union struggles of the thirties, and much more, while we created our present.

We’re still out there. When I compiled the histories for the first edition of Voices from the Underground, what was most gratifying to me was that most of my contributors were still organizing and teaching and keeping their visions alive. Those who are still living still are politically active. But as a generation we’ve peaked. It’s your turn now, those of you who are college age and recently beyond, to carry on the struggle that we carried on from generations before us.

Our two generations, our struggles, are intimately connected. In my generation, we flooded the colleges for at least two reasons: tuition was low and staying in college gave you a 2-S draft deferment. While we were in the college atmosphere, we learned how to think logically and critically, we met with other thinkers, and we organized to end a vicious war. It was the spawning ground for gender, minority, environmental, and other liberation movements. The underground press absorbed our thoughts and preserved them for you to study and critique.

The right has waged a war against education since then—and make no mistake they want you to be either dumb and mindless—apparently truth is liberal—or so in debt you are a slave to your job, which, thanks to them, pays less and provides fewer benefits. So they have actively and enthusiastically waged war on public schools, attacked teachers’ unions, and cut aid for higher education.

The issues that we raised, the struggles we fought, were analyzed and documented in the pages of the underground and alternative press. Some of it was pretty crazy. One night I dropped acid with a fellow staffer and we went to a revival meeting to hear Leighton Ford, the son-in-law of Billy Graham. I took voracious notes—there was speed in the acid. On the way back, I read aloud some of what I wrote and my friend thought it was funny so I published my notes and called the article “I Dropped Acid and Saw God.” Another article I wrote was about a game a couple of my friends made up where they followed police cars and tried to not get busted. I called the article “Got One on the Pig-O-Scope.” I was attacked for being irresponsible. I was.

But we also attacked the government’s atrocities in Vietnam and other countries and connected them to injustices at home as we worked to create a peace community. Your battle, one of them, is to take back the schools and colleges by ensuring the right to a decent, low-cost education that leads to a good job. Join the movement to eliminate student debt. If we can wipe bank debts clean and give billionaires tax breaks, we can wipe student debts clean also.

Today we’re doing okay on some of the social issues that emerged back then: gay rights, legalized marijuana. Public awareness is starting to turn the corner on the environment and the Middle East. We’re not doing so okay on others: women’s rights, immigrant rights, voting rights. Economically we’ve got our work cut out for us: union rights, student tuition, the wealth gap, campaign finance laws. There are other issues, and they’re all connected. Learn how. Don’t accept simplistic solutions that pit potential allies against each other. And don’t give in to despair.

I don’t think you will, because your generation is one of the most progressive in years. I have great faith in the immediate future.

Study the underground press to learn what the best minds—and, don’t get me wrong, some of the goofiest minds—were thinking. We made lots of mistakes but we made some brilliant analyses, changed the world, and had fun. We quoted the words of anarchist Emma Goldman, who said, “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.” Stew Albert, who was one of the legendary founders of the Yippies, said to me one day words that I have never forgotten. He said, “We can’t lose. We’re having too much fun.” It was summer 1972. We were in Miami Beach, where the Democrats and Republicans were holding their presidential conventions. We were at that moment on our way to the Yippie Puke-In.

Study this period. There has never been a more exciting, outrageous, mythological, liberating, artistic, magical period in our country’s history.

Begin by scouring the pages of the underground press.

Challenge everything you learn, including everything I just said.

Then create your own myths.

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4 Responses

  1. Great article, Ken.

  2. Thanks, Bill.

  3. Am I the only friend that read every word
    you are the alternative paper whisperer and a brilliant man
    thank you for documenting the happiest years of history for us boomers. It was also the sadest most dangerous sexually free and loose craziest drug induced party of all times.
    Gratefully Nancy

  4. Nancy, no, fortunately others have read it as well though they recorded their comments and “likes” on Facebook. Thanks for the kind words. Please feel free to share this widely.

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