Last month I posted the talk that I gave at the “Women’s History in the Digital World 2015” conference at Bryn Mawr College. Given the narrow scope of the conference, women’s studies, the scope of my talk was limited to the feminist and lesbian underground papers. The week after, I spoke at Left Forum 2015. There, the scope was “the political Left”—including national, international, any topic at all. So, my talk, adapted from two previous talks and reproduced below, was on the broader definition of the underground press, beyond the women’s papers, beyond the thread that begins with the Los Angeles Free Press. All of the definitions need to be known, their stories celebrated and shared widely especially with the current and future generations of activists, our intergenerational peers.
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In the late sixties and throughout the 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 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 public discourse. Few high school or college courses studied it honestly.
By 1993, when I published the first edition of Voices from the Underground, my anthology of underground press histories as written by key people on each of the papers, 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 Independent Voices, the underground press digital project that I’m talking about here. 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, non-corporate, 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 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 Non-violent 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 Independent Voices.
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 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 from the sixties and seventies.
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 today 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.
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 of my series 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 Michigan State University’s State News during the time I wrote for Joint Issue, the Lansing-area underground paper, 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 it was a karmic blessing when I was approached by Jeff Moyer one day five years back to lead the effort to digitize underground, alternative, and literary papers from the fifties through the eighties.
Jeff was the former head of the digitizing department at ProQuest. With a partner, he bought out the department and founded IDC, Image Data Conversion. But on his own he also started Reveal Digital because he had an idea for an economic model that would create wondrous keyword-searchable digital collections in a way that was friendly to library budgets and would end up with the collections going into open access, the holy grail for librarians. The first collection he wanted to create was of underground newspapers. He approached me after discovering the first edition of Voices from the Underground at the library of Eastern Michigan University, where I used to teach. He brought me on board as a consultant and not long after that he hired me full time.
What attracted me to the project, besides the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the underground press, was Jeff’s economic model, what he calls “cost recovery = open access.” Basically, we promote upcoming projects to libraries through our crowd-funding website, where we describe each project, explain its significance, lay out the proposed contents as well as the sourcing libraries, and list the line-item expenses. Then we invite libraries to make non-binding commitments to purchase the collection but we don’t yet invoice them. When we have enough commitments to recover the costs, what we call our “sales threshold,” we go into full production, including rights gathering, sourcing from libraries, and scanning and digitizing.
Projects that are looking for funding include
- SNCC Digital Archives 1960-1969: Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was the premier Civil Rights group of the early sixties.
- Highlander Folk School Archives, 1932-1983: Not everyone has heard of Highlander but everyone has heard of Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger. They and others received their training here.
- Liberation News Service Archive, 1968-1981: LNS was the AP-UPI of the underground press. This collection will include their twice-weekly news packets and their photo archives.
- Sylvester Manor Archives, 1649-1996: The archives contain records of a sugar plantation that has been in the same family’s hands continuously for over 350 years.
Libraries pay according to a tiered structure but it amounts to about 20% of what they would pay one of the larger digital publishing companies for a comparable project that the company would keep behind a pay wall forever. Those libraries that support us have immediate access to the evolving collection while it is in development. Soon after it is completed, it goes into open access where even those libraries that didn’t support it have access to it. Meanwhile we’ll be working on other projects with the same model. No library pays for every collection but everyone benefits from every collection.
This is a righteous model that deserves library and foundation support. In an earlier life I worked for many years as managing editor of Reference Services Review and Serials Review, two journals that were read widely by reference librarians and serials librarians. I read countless articles and heard countless librarian laments about rising costs and decreasing budgets. But I also remembered the community feeling that librarians shared. The focus was always on increasing and facilitating user access. Usually it was the larger libraries that made the big investments and then the benefits would trickle down to the smaller libraries. With Reveal’s tiered structure, everyone can help.
With Independent Voices, the underground press collection, we’re still looking for funding but we are already actively working on it because we wanted to get one live collection out into the public. Our goal was to get over 1,000 titles. We already have more than that including some 120 women’s papers, 130 literary magazines—what were known as “little” magazines back then, some 20 gay papers, 60 minority papers, over 100 campus, community, high school, and other underground and alternative newspapers, 900 papers published by and for members of the military in all branches of the service, and even 4 papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement.
So far we’re about 40% of the way to being fully funded. We could include a lot more titles, and we would like to, if we had the funding.
We’re working with a growing team of libraries that are sending us original papers from their collections that we scan and digitize and then return safely to them along with keyword-searchable digital files and metadata of the papers that we scan.
Our goal is to upload a million pages of exact keyword-searchable digital reproductions by the end of January 2017. So far we have uploaded about 250,000 pages. Currently the collection is accessible only to patrons of our supporting libraries. After we reach our sales threshold, we’ll go into open access, which is the vision. However, libraries can make the files that we send them accessible immediately.
So this is where we are now.
In the sixties, we of the antiwar movement 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 and wrote about our present.
We’re still out there, organizing and teaching and keeping our visions alive. But as a generation we’ve peaked. Those of you who are college age and recently beyond, it’s your turn now to lead the struggle that we carried on from generations before us.
Our two generations and 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 relentless 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 because high schoolers read our paper. 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, health care. Public awareness is starting to turn the corner on the environment and the Middle East. We’re getting trounced, but raising awareness, on women’s rights, immigrant rights, voting rights. Economically we’ve got our work cut out for us with union rights, student tuition, the wealth gap, campaign finance laws, expanding Social Security. 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.
We made lots of mistakes back when 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 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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