Celebrating Berkeley Barb’s 50th Anniversary of Founding

I’ve said it many times already in many forms. I’m happy to say it again: My deepest thanks to the Berkeley Barb reunion committee for inviting me to share in the festivities of the fiftieth anniversary reunion, Wednesday and Thursday August 12-13. (Events took place all week but those were the only two I was able to attend.) The Barb, one of the legendary underground papers of the Vietnam era, hasn’t actually been around since 1980 but it was founded fifty years ago, in 1965, and fifty years of anything is worthy of a celebration.

Reunions always include at least two parts. First is the celebration, seeing friends who you haven’t seen in what seems like forever and who you’re never sure you will ever see again, and also seeing folks who go back to the same time but who you never knew personally and are meeting for the first time. So the event is joyous at the same time as it is bittersweet.

Here are some of the friends who shared memories and laughs with me:

  • Friends I met while organizing against both major parties in Miami Beach in the summer of 1972 (Gabrielle Schang, Leslie Bacon, Babs Yohai, Kathy Streem, Judy Gumbo);
  • A friend who worked with me on Joint Issue in Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan, and then made the trek west with a stop at the Barb (Stephen Vernon);
  • A friend from East Lansing who worked on another area underground paper, The Spectacle (Tom Price);
  • Contributors to my Voices from the Underground Series (Trina Robbins, Alta, Laura X, all veterans of the feminist newspaper It Aint Me Babe);
  • Members of the reunion committee (Raquel Scherr, Gar Smith, Diana Stephens, John Jekabson);
  • The legendary medical advice columnist Eugene Schoenfeld, known as Dr. HIPpocrates.
John Jekabson, Berkeley Barb veteran and member of the reunion committee, with Ken Wachsberger. Photo credit Marianne Smith, August 2015

John Jekabson, Berkeley Barb veteran and member of the reunion committee, with Ken Wachsberger. Photo credit Marianne Smith, August 2015

And there were others so apologies to anyone I neglected to list here.

The second part is reflective. When you’re living in the now and you’re looking back fifty years, and if you have an active mind, you can’t help but go deep inside yourself as you listen to others go deep inside themselves. The conference on Thursday encouraged the trip back in time. It began with a keynote from feminist comix pioneer Trina Robbins talking about women in the underground press and how she broke through the all-boys’ club of comix artists; and ended with a keynote from Dr. HIP, giving his fascinating life story including how he came to write his famous sex advice column for the Barb, which was “syndicated” in underground papers all over the country. (I use quotes because none of the papers that reprinted his column, he said, in fact paid him. Although membership in Underground Press Syndicate allowed papers to reprint others’ articles and graphics for free, it is likely that non-UPS members also reprinted his column without paying for it; we were kind of loose with understanding of copyright in those days.)

Between the opening and closing keynotes were two panels and a reading by feminist poet Alta. In the morning panel, moderated by Judy Gumbo, veterans of the Barb representing the entire fifteen-year span of its existence shared their memories by answering two questions apiece that Judy prepared specifically for them. I shared the afternoon panel with journalist/historians Peter Richardson, historian of Ramparts magazine and the Grateful Dead; and Seth Rosenfeld, chronicler of the FBI-Ronald Reagan war against student radicals in the sixties. Diana Stephens, who led the effort to organize the reunion after being inspired during the writing of her master’s thesis on the Barb, moderated this panel.

A report on the reunion appeared in the Contra Costa Times News. You can read it here.

Following is the full text of my talk, which I cut slightly at the panel in consideration of a tight time frame.

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As a veteran and a historian of the sixties, I hear often—and maybe you do, too—the question: “When did the sixties end?” I’d like to reframe that question:

  • Same-sex marriage is now legal in the entire country.
  • Legal marijuana is not far behind.
  • Women are rising up again to fight for equality and to control their own bodies.
  • U.S. residents of Mexican descent, who we knew as Chicanos, are demanding a path to citizenship and the right to study their history and culture in schools and universities.
  • Black Lives Matter.
  • A socialist is a viable candidate for president.
  • And the alternative press is vibrant, and more necessary than ever.

So my reframed question is: How have the sixties lasted so long? That shining star that never fades.

When I was compiling and editing histories of individual underground papers in the late eighties-early nineties for the first edition of my Voices from the Underground Series, I was chided by at least one friend, himself a veteran of the underground press, for putting so much effort into such an esoteric topic. Fortunately, I didn’t know what “esoteric” meant, so I was undeterred. Since then, it has become a major part of my life’s work.

While working on that first edition, my most gratifying discovery was that my contributors were still politically active. This was no small feat. We were fifteen years after the war’s end. The country had veered dramatically to the right. We were living in Reagan’s America. A major percentage of our peers were becoming Yuppified. They were hiding from their own kids what they did to help us accomplish all that we did because they were paranoid of losing their jobs, even though the period had produced the broadest, most diverse antiwar movement in the history of our country.

Now we’re 25 years beyond that time. I know all of you are still politically active. And the country is starting to swing around to our side. I know it still looks bad, but the arc is curving in our direction. We were persistent. We were patient. And we were right all along.

And I discovered something else: Our friend Jerry Rubin said it best: “We are everywhere.” Underground papers were everywhere. They were in urban, suburban, rural, ghetto, barrio, tribal, and other communities in every state of the Union and in countries around the world. They represented the gay, lesbian, feminist, black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Asian American, Chicano, senior citizen, high school, campus, community, anarchist, socialist, psychedelic, counterculture, new age, prisoners’ rights, 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 published by or directed to members of the military. Support the troops? You’re damn right we supported the troops. No one supported the troops like we did. Underground papers were everywhere. Each one spoke to its own unique audience. But they were united against the war.

So here we are celebrating Berkeley Barb, one of the greats, one of the legends, one of the first five members of Underground Press Syndicate, the first nationwide network of countercultural underground newspapers. My hat’s off to all of you who played a role in that history. You really are a remarkable family of heroes and legends and friends. I’m honored to be sharing this historic moment with you.

And congratulations to all of you who came of age in the eighties and nineties and have carried on our struggles, which we carried on from generations before us. You’re the new leadership.

We still have goals to achieve, fantasies to live, as Abbie [Hoffman] would have said, but the torch has been passed to the next generation. Our mission now is to share our experiences and lessons with current and future leaders.

Here’s the first thing, people of my generation, you’re going to find: Too many young folks have no idea what happened back when. A journalist wrote to me recently. He said: “It is interesting how little the underground press plays into our popular conception of the 60s and 70s, given how vibrant the scene seemed to be.”

We can debate the reasons but he’s right. Young, progressive bloggers, our political heirs, for the most part, have no idea of their journalistic roots.

So I’m issuing you all a challenge. We’re in the middle of a celebration and I’m issuing a challenge. Here’s my challenge: Record your stories. Now. Produce a movie. Publish a book. Post a blog entry. Write a letter to your kids. Get it down—because if you don’t, someone else will do it for you and it won’t be the way you remember it or the way you want others to remember it. Teach your children and your children’s children.

I’m grateful to the reunion committee for inviting me here to share my latest effort to preserve the greatest writings of our generation, including the Barb, and make them accessible to current and future generations of activists, artists, and historians. When we’re done, we will have digitized over 1,000 titles, representing over three-quarters of a million pages of exact, keyword-searchable, digital reproductions of underground, alternative, and literary newspapers and magazines from the fifties through the eighties covering all of the genres I mentioned earlier. We even have four papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement. With more funding, we could do more. So all of you wealthy heirs here today, let’s talk.

We heard Trina Robbins, in her keynote, talk about women in the underground press. The digital collection includes nearly 120 feminist and lesbian papers including the Bay Area’s own It Aint Me Babe, the first nationwide feminist underground newspaper in the United States, and one fortunate enough to have had many of Trina’s covers and inside cartoons. Sometime after January 2017, the collection will go into open access, which means the entire collection will be accessible to anyone through a simple keyword search.

While it is still in development, only patrons of supporting libraries can get into it, but one of them is Berkeley. In fact, the entire UC system is a supporter so anyone with access to any of the UC libraries can view the complete evolving collection. We have about 400,000 pages uploaded so far.

And if your library isn’t on board, here are two thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Please introduce me to your acquisitions librarian.
  2. We have put aside a select list of twenty-two titles that are open access from the beginning so you can get a feel for the site and endorse it glowingly to your acquisitions librarian. One of them, in honor of this wonderful celebration, is Berkeley Barb.

We’re working with a growing team of sourcing libraries and individuals, including some of you here today, who are sending us original copies of papers from their collections that we scan and digitize and then return to them. In this way, we are able to create complete runs of titles where the individual sourcing libraries had gaps in theirs. When we’re done, we will have, as far as we can tell, the only complete collection of the Barb anywhere and it will be fully keyword-searchable. Thanks to all of you who have shared your original issues.

I became aware of the Barb before Kent State, which is when I became radicalized. I remember the day. I was visiting my brother in Manhattan Beach. I was listening to Johnny Rivers sing “Going Back to Big Sur” and I realized that Big Sur was only about 400 miles north on Highway 1. So the next morning I filled my laundry bag with two days worth of clothing and camping gear, slung it over my left shoulder, and rode my right thumb up Highway 1. I know it was 1969 because that was my first of what would turn out to be a decade of hitchhiking adventures and it was the year, I learned later, that Jack Kerouac died. So naturally, I drew a karmic connection between the two of us, two generations of hitchhikers. Three short rides brought me out of the Los Angeles area, and then I got picked up by four long-haired hippies, two male and two female, in—cliché alert—a VW microbus with multi-colored swirls and shooting stars on the sides. There was so much smoke coming out of the car I was high before I sat down. Some time before I passed out with a big grin on my face, they introduced me to the latest copy of the Barb. I’m pretty sure that was why I had a grin.

For a kid from the eastside suburbs of Cleveland who wasn’t ready yet for the politics, the Barb was outrageous with its cartoons, graphics, and layout that told me there was something different out there that I couldn’t ignore. Later, when I came of age at Michigan State and realized that The Paper, East Lansing’s underground newspaper, was one of the first five members of Underground Press Syndicate, I discovered that the Barb had been another. Berkeley was the epicenter of the counterculture. The Barb was the voice of Berkeley.

The sixties was an amazing era, one of the most dynamic, colorful, significant—and divisive—eras in our young country’s history. I’ve never been one to apologize for the period’s supposed excesses and I’ll bet none of you have either. Were we excessive? Of course we were. We changed the world, for the better, and it’s still changing, for the better, because of what we did—and what we continue to do.

Congratulations to the Berkeley Barb for being such a major player in this historic era that never fades.

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Speaking at the Berkeley Barb Reunion

I’ve been honored with an invitation to speak at the Berkeley Barb 50-year anniversary reunion, which is next Wednesday and Thursday, 8/12-13. What a week it’s going to be.

The Berkeley Barb was one of the original members of Underground Press Syndicate, the first nationwide network of countercultural underground newspapers. The Barb, founded in 1965, was the voice of the Berkeley community, which was the epicenter of the counterculture.

The week-long celebration begins on Sunday 8/9 with an art opening at the Art House Gallery (2905 Shattuck from noon to 3) featuring the work of Berkeley Barb artist Patricia Oberhaus and photographers John Jekabson and Harold Adler, all of which I’ll miss unfortunately because I won’t be arriving until Monday 8/10.

But I’ll be there on Wednesday 8/12 for the party and the concert with radio pioneer Scoop Nisker and live performances by Country Joe McDonald, Jef Jaisun, and Sal Valentino at the Freight & Salvage at 2020 Addison St. in the heart of Berkeley. I’m told it holds over 400 people; that may not be large enough to hold everyone who wants to attend so if you’re in the area and want to attend show up early. Tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 7 p.m.

On Thursday 8/13 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Berkeley Main Library will host a day of speakers and panels in their community room. Legendary feminist comix illustrator and pioneer Trina Robbins will give the opening keynote, on women and their adventures underground; and Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld (Dr. Hip) will give the closing keynote, on sex, drugs, and health. Trina, I’m honored to say, was a contributor to the It Aint Me Babe history in my Voices from the Underground Series. Dr. Hip was an underground press syndicated columnist (which meant everybody used his column and no one paid him) who dispensed sex advice in a Dear Abby format. I read him regularly because East Lansing’s The Paper, another history in my series, was one of the papers that published his column.

 

I’ll be participating in the second of two panels, along with Peter Richardson, historian of Ramparts magazine and the Grateful Dead; and Seth Rosenfeld, chronicler of the FBI-Ronald Reagan war against student radicals in the sixties.

And more. It’s going to be an incredible event.

Main events conclude Friday 8/14 with an all-day festival of films from or about the era.

Kudos to the organizing committee for creating this event: Gar Smith, Diana Stephens, Raquel Scherr, Judy Gumbo, Ray Riegert, John Jekabson, and George Csicsery—though I know lots of other folks have made major contributions.

And if you’re in the area, I hope to see you there.

 

Opening the Information Vault: Preserving, Digitizing, and Funding the International Women’s History Periodical Archive

I was honored to have as one of my co-panelists at Bryn Mawr College’s “Women’s History in the Digital World 2015” conference the most important feminist archivist of the sixties and seventies as well as the founder of Women’s History Month and so much more: Laura X.

In her talk, which appears here in this guest blog, edited for publication, Laura talks about the rediscovery of International Women’s Day, which then led to the creation of the central archive of the women’s movement from 1968 to 1974, and the founding of both Women’s History Month in 1969 and the Women’s History Library. Previous to 1969, she was a Head Start teacher in New York and a CORE picket captain and then active in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 as well as the emerging peace and women’s movements.

LauraX_17832414558_ff1262072a_z

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Ken, you are my hero for this digitizing of our early movement materials and your Voices from the Underground Series, including our chapter on It Aint Me Babe, the first U.S. national Women’s Liberation newspaper. I am so happy to be involved with the ingathering of feminist and lesbian periodicals for digitizing.

Ken asked me to tell our historical origin pre-story for the International Women’s History Periodical Archive. (Women’s Liberation Movement publications included the note “This publication is on file at the International Women’s History Periodical Archive” and our address, which caused other publications from 40 countries to place themselves on file in our archive as well.)

I’ll start with the strike that was inspired by Russian women in 1917, the discovery of which inspired me to help organize a demonstration in Berkeley for International Women’s Day on March 8, 1969, and to begin to build the idea of Women’s History Month around March 8. Our Women’s History Library, which maintained the International archive of our movement from 1968 to 1974, took a quantum leap forward from the national publicity as a result of that Berkeley demonstration. There had been no such demonstration for IWD in the U.S. since 1947. By the next year, 1970, there were Women’s Liberation events in 30 cities around the world for March 8.

So, to begin: Back in late 1968, I saw the 1929 Soviet film The End of St. Petersburg by Vsevolod Pudovkin. The women’s demonstration in St. Petersburg on February 23, 1917 for “bread, peace and land” is clearly the spark that ignited the strike for the Putilov factory workers. Their strike toppled the rule of the czars within four days of the women’s protest. What is not known, partly due to the confusion of the use of another calendar system by the Eastern church, is that their February 23 was March 8 on the Western calendar; the Bolshevik women who organized the demonstration over the protests of their male comrades were in fact deliberately celebrating International Women’s Day, which had been declared seven years earlier.

Although by 1969 I had considered myself a socialist for thirteen years, had been immersed in Left politics in New York and Berkeley, and had been to the Soviet Union twice to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary in 1967, I still did not learn until late 1968 that International Women’s Day was based on a U.S. event that took place on March 8, 1908. It had been celebrated big time in the Socialist countries around the world, but by 1969 in the USSR it had deteriorated into something like Mother’s Day in the U.S. where women are given flowers, and the day was ignored here.

In November 1968 I called for U.S. celebrations of IWD in a review of The End of St. Petersburg for the UC Berkeley newspaper The Daily Californian. I had just been told by Noel Ignatin, a socialist active in Chicago, about the Russian women inspiring the 1917 strike by demanding an end to World War I as well as bread and land. He also told me that the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen in 1910 had declared March 8 to be International Working Women’s Day in a motion made by Clara Zetkin, a German Communist, and seconded by Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik (majority) party leader whose triumphant return from exile was made possible by the so-called February Revolution of 1917, the one begun by women on March 8 on the Western calendar. I believe his source was Isaac Deutscher’s The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967.

But what really ignited me was that once again American history had been stolen from us. I had just recently been angry about discovering that May Day, the enormous international socialist event on May 1, commemorated the Haymarket Square massacre of the workers in Chicago who were struggling for an eight-hour day in 1881. Noel told me that the resolution for International Women’s Day in 1910 was to commemorate a demonstration in New York in 1908 of garment workers who were demanding an end to sweatshops and to child labor, and also the right to vote.

The part about the vote intrigued me because women on the Left as late as 1969 were being hooted down and dismissed as bourgeois whenever we demanded our rights as women—indeed as human beings. And Leftist men were perpetuating the myth that no one in the working class wanted any women’s rights, including the right to vote. I had been collecting mimeographed manifestos and letters to the editors of the Leftist press about many such outrages by men in the antiwar and Civil Rights movements for six months or more in order to try to recapture my sanity after having been battered and nearly killed by my own comrade and lover. (He had been a child prodigy violinist and was by then a revolutionary poet. We met demonstrating in Puerto Rico against the U.S. invasion of Santo Domingo. The grief over the loss of that relationship and my fright over how it ended seemed insurmountable until I discovered the rising up of women in all the movements of the sixties.)

In January/February 1969 I was invited to a little party of sociology professors to show the mimeos and pamphlets to Pauline Bart, who was considering teaching a Women’s Studies course, the first at UC Berkeley. As we were being introduced, everyone’s favorite male radical professor, David Matza, whose courage had been demonstrated on the Third World Strike picket lines on campus, overheard us, and before I could speak he told Pauline not to bother teaching such a course, because there was not enough about women to fill a quarter course. That betrayal knocked me into the orbit of the pure fury of those heady days. In three days I pestered friends everywhere and pulled together a list of 1,000 women in world history: politics, the arts and sciences.

I had had the immense privilege of going to girls’ schools and a women’s college. It was only in my last year in college, at UC Berkeley, that I discovered that not everybody knew that women could do everything! I nailed the list to Professor Matza’s door (in homage to Luther) and went in search of a local women’s liberation group through the father of one of its members.

Bill Mandel had a show on the Soviet Union on Pacifica Radio that I started listening to in 1960 in New York, though it originated from Pacifica’s mother station in Berkeley. He regularly read from the Soviet press on International Women’s Day. His daughter, Phyllis, a long-time activist, took me to the Berkeley Women’s Liberation group, which then organized the first street demonstration about International Women’s Day since 1947 in the U.S. Many of us dressed up as women in history from my list. I was a cross between Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolshevik feminist, and Isadora Duncan, the American woman who lived for a time in Russia and transformed the world of dance away from the confines of the ballet.

Liberation News Service picked up the story from a San Francisco paper about our parade in Berkeley and its sources from my list. The publicity from their article caused people from this and many other countries to begin to send me everything imaginable about women in history, including information about their own family members. People also came to visit from around the country, and to volunteer. Ten thousand copies of the list, by now called the HERSTORY SYNOPSIS, were sold within a few short years. Five thousand people have volunteered here.

We put out the only national women’s liberation newsletter from April to December 1969, SPAZM: the Sophia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov Memorial Society for Peoples’ Freedom through Women’s Liberation. Sophia and Andrei were lovers. She was the 16-year-old daughter of the governor of St. Petersburg and the two of them assassinated the czar in 1881. I was not comfortable about assassinations as a political tactic, having just lived through several in the sixties:  John Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy.

But I liked the part about the comrade-lovers, and the rebellious adolescent daughter of a powerful man. The name was also in the style of rock groups, but the last part of it fully embodied my philosophy for peoples’ freedom, which I still hold today. By January 1970 we had to put SPAZM into newsprint as it was too unwieldy as a zine. Other people wanted to do a paper, too, so It Aint Me Babe, the first national newspaper of the U.S. Women’s Liberation Movement, was born. (People from off our backs called me to pick my brain for their name, which ended up being a combination of the quote from the Grimke sisters about getting our brothers off our necks and revulsion at the quote attributed to Stokely Carmichael about the position of women in SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) being prone and silent. Their paper came out only a few weeks later, the first national feminist paper to emerge from the East Coast.)

There were many other firsts from the Women’s History Library:

  • the anthology Masculine/Feminine in 1969 with all the great manifestos;
  • The Women’s Songbook;
  • Female Artists Past and Present: Films by and/or about Women Internationally, Past and Present;
  • Bibliography on Rape; and
  • Women and Religion Bibliography.

Most lasting are the microfilms of the records of our movement: nearly one million documents now available through the National Women’s History Project in Santa Rosa, California (707-636-2888; nwhp1980@gmail.com).

Besides handling the distribution of our library’s resources, the people at National Women’s History Project have carried on the ideas we had when we founded our library beyond our wildest dreams, including their idea and work making Congress declare March as Women’s History Month. They also have put up the fabulous website for all of the celebrations in 1998 for the 150th anniversary of the Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.

My archive features documents, media, and other materials collected over the last fifty years. The collection pertains to the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and a wide array of precursors and overlapping social movements from the second half of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the women’s movement, including references to my own successful state-by-state campaign to abolish the legal privilege and exemption for marital and date rape. The presence of my materials in the Laura X Social Movements Archives most directly addresses the need to “understand the moral and ethical values of a diverse society and understand that many courses of action are guided by value judgments about the way things ought to be ….”

The important reservoirs of tens of thousands of documents from local, national, and international sources that constitute the Laura X Social Movements Archives have been carefully preserved and maintained for historical research and presentation. The collection is derived from my participation in an extensive array of social movements, including the anti-nuke, peace, Civil Rights, Free Speech, women’s rights, and environmental movements; my life in St. Louis and beyond; the organizations I founded; the materials I produced for my organizing work around the country; materials produced by other organizations that I collected for posterity; and smaller collections donated to me.

The staff and volunteers of the Laura X Institute (see text of informational flyer below) are currently engaged in sorting, cataloging, and assigning “finding aids” to the 580 boxes of materials, in order to keep them vibrant, accessible, and available for researchers, curators, film makers, and other interested parties. Once finished, the Institute’s archive will be a resource for students, professors, historians, film documentarians, museums, exhibitions, high school teachers, activists, and other members of the general public.

Our prior collection, covering up to 1974, was converted to microfilm and the master microfilm donated in 1989 by the Women’s History Research Center (WHRC) to the National Women’s History Project (NWHP). Since 1974 the microfilm copies have been distributed through NWHP and WHRC, now currently through Primary Source Media/Cengage Learning to some 450 libraries in fourteen countries so far.

We recently were displaced after the Missouri legislature removed funding to the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Many programs were cut, including our archives. So it is vital now that we get this project finished. We are experiencing many challenges in maintaining our collection of over 500 boxes. We also have to raise funding to rent our rooms near Harris-Stowe State University and St. Louis University. Museum-quality storage is expensive; HVAC systems, filtration, and proper shelving all come at high costs. Accessibility to our documents also is challenging; right now we can’t afford the price of digitizing all of our work and the equipment needed for it, which is why we are reaching out to other sources of funding. We would like our collection to be fully cataloged first so we can then get the large donation to digitize. Even cataloging our collection is costly and time consuming for only a few individuals.

If our collection were being funded under the Reveal Digital model, they would put it up on their crowd-funding website; once we had the support from libraries, we would go into production. No library pays a lot and yet every library benefits. My archives could be invaluable to courses in women’s history, the environment, the social movements of the sixties and seventies, and many others. The collaboration between libraries and archives is important; as we step into a more digitally focused age, the importance of these documents and publications becomes more apparent for researchers.

We are not trying to recreate history, but learn from it.

* * *

[Following is the text of the flyer from the Laura X World Institute and Archives]

 

                   

Legacy and Learning of Social Justice Movements

JOIN US TO SAVE 47* YEARS OF FEMINIST HISTORY

 MEET THE CHALLENGE: Raise funds, find homes, send your favorite interns, and even swing by St. Louis to be inspired.

BACKGROUND HISTORY

The legendary Women’s History Library, created by pioneer feminist Laura X with a mostly-volunteer staff, gathered nearly a million documents on the changing lives of women from 1968-1974, including the only comprehensive records of our movement, nationally and internationally. The library divided the archives into three collections for microfilm publishing: HERSTORY (90 reels of 821 serial titles: 20,000 issues of journals, newspapers, and newsletters from 40 countries); WOMEN’S HEALTH/MENTAL HEALTH (14 reels) and WOMEN AND LAW (40 reels covering Education, Politics, Employment, Abortion, Family, Rape, Prison, Prostitution, etc).

This historic treasure, described by the American Library Association as “the most comprehensive record of any social protest movement” is now available on microfilm in nearly 500 libraries in 14 countries. These microfilms can be purchased from the National Women’s History Project (707-636-2888), the great group that convinced Congress to make National Women’s History Month official. (The Week was approved in 1981 and the Month was recognized in 1987.)

Once the first stage of the Women’s History Library’s work was accomplished—the preservation of the first part of the woman’s liberation movement until 1974—Laura X, again with volunteers, founded the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape in 1978. Documents and papers from numerous women’s movement groups and individuals continued to flow in despite the Library’s announced 1974 end of collecting, while Laura X accumulated more material from her own work on rape.

The University of Illinois took over many of the Clearinghouse resources in 1985, but Laura X continued until 1993, when she succeeded in making marital and date rape a crime in all 50 states.

THE PROBLEM—Without You

For proper preservation of perishable materials, an apartment was rented for storage where room temperature, humidity, pesticide use, and other factors could be controlled. Laura finally gave up the non-profit in 2000. She has now spent over 41 years trying to stop the flow of materials to her while searching for funding and institutions to take over the materials!

Temporarily the bulk of the materials since 74’ were housed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis but, the legislature of Missouri cut $4 million dollars worth of project and program funding including ours. We moved to a strategic storefront next to Harris-Stowe State University and St. Louis University to be available to researchers and interns.

The papers, approximately 580 boxes, must be sorted still!

THE SOLUTION—With You

You will seek to find repositories for the remainder, with all the energy and brains you can muster!

Your tax-deductible donations and grants for the work of the Institute and archives as well as those for interns and digitizing may be sent to:

Website: lauraxinstitute.org   Email: laurax@sbcglobal.net

*PS. It should be noted that, as a social activist since her student days in the Sixties, thousands of documents from other social movements are also available.

The Laura X – Laura Rand Orthwein, Jr. World Institute is the teaching arm of Laura’s new nonprofit, Laura’s Social Movements Archives, which feature documents and other materials collected by Laura and so many others, over the last fifty years since the Free Speech Movement.

We have moved into a new location and would love any advice on lighting, archival materials, and digitizing equipment to use.

 

 

 

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.

Join Me in Celebrating Lansing’s Independent Bookstore

Hello, Lansing-area Friends,

The good folks at Everybody Reads Books and Stuff have invited me back to talk about volume 4 of my Voices from the Underground Series, the final in my four-volume series. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the completion of a 25-year journey!—or rejoin me if you attended any of my other three shows.

  • Date: Thursday December 6, 2012
  • Time: 6:30-8:30 p.m., with reception beginning at 6 p.m.
  • Location: The Avenue Café, 2021 East Michigan Avenue, Lansing (restaurant next to the bookstore)

But this event isn’t just about me. Yes, I’ll talk about my book. But I also will talk about a precious community resource that we all know and love, and don’t want to lose: Everybody Reads. I’ll call on you to share your thoughts and memories at the open mic. What better way to embarrass owner Scott Harris with compliments and appreciation?

I’m honored that Peace Education Center has chosen to sponsor the event and that The Avenue Café has offered their premises.

We know that Everybody Reads is facing challenging times. Every independent bookstore in America is. In fact, most have gone under. Everybody Reads remains, not just to sell books but to provide important space for community events like these.

But they need your help.

So please come. Come in full force. Come with your friends.  Come ready to buy books—for yourself, for your holiday gifts, to donate to your favorite library.

And come hungry because the good folks at Peace Education Center are bringing hors d’oeuvres for the 6 p.m. reception. If the spirit strikes you, feel free to bring your favorite dish to pass as well.

For my part, I’m donating all proceeds from sales of my books to Everybody Reads. I’m no hero. Everybody Reads has been real good to me in my three previous appearances. It’s my small way of giving back. So buy lots of my books. There’s no better time to get all four while helping the Lansing community’s only independent bookstore at the same time.

Please share this blog entry with everyone you know who might be interested.

Include everyone you know who values top-quality, community-minded, independent bookstores. Lansing has one of the best: Everybody Reads Books and Stuff. It needs our help.

I look forward to celebrating with you and your friends at The Avenue Café Thursday December 6.

Sincerely,

Ken Wachsberger

STORY OF VIETNAM ERA’S PREMIER PRISONERS’ RIGHTS UNDERGROUND PAPER: You Don’t Want to Miss This One

It would be sheer understatement for me to praise Joe Grant’s prison bio as “groundbreaking,” “moving,” or “eye-opening.” It is all these things, but certainly much more…. This is journalism, of a kind that never made it into the curriculum of J-School. This ain’t your grandmama’s New York Times. This is the real stuff. Grant gives us all a bird’s-eye view of how prisons ran during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and gives us a glimpse of what might have been, before the prison reform movement fell into the black hole of the corrections industry, and the culture of mass fear emerged.

—Mumia Abu-Jamal, award-winning journalist and former Black Panther Party member, in the foreword to Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off!, written while living on death row in Pennsylvania prison

Volume 4 of the Voices from the Underground Series, Joe Grant’s Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off!: A Brief History of the Prisoners’ Digest International, is out. In my last post I made the same announcement but then talked about the series as a whole. After twenty-five years of work, I felt I had earned the right to reflect.

But now I want to talk about volume 4. If you have not read any of the stories in the previous three volumes, fear not. This one is as good a place to start as any. (There’s always time to pick up the earlier three.)

Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off! is Joe Grant’s story of how he came to publish the most important prisoners’ rights underground newspaper of the Vietnam era—and possibly of all time. And what a great story Joe tells. As with all great memoirs, it’s much more than that. Most of the contributors to the Voices from the Underground Series were baby boomers who devoted our adult coming-of-age years to working on the underground press while we opposed the war. But Joe was from an earlier generation. His story begins in pre-Revolutionary Cuba in 1953 during the Korean War at a time when he was serving in the navy and many of us had not yet begun pre-school.

It takes us through his years as publisher of a rank-and-file newspaper, then into Leavenworth.

“Back then,” Joe writes, the feds “used Leavenworth for the truly incorrigible.”

Leavenworth was where they sent the prisoners when they closed Alcatraz.

Stepping into that prison and becoming part of it reminded me of the opening paragraph of Tale of Two Cities. It was the best and the worst place to do time. The best place to be if you wanted to serve your prison sentence and not be bothered by anyone—prisoner or guard. The worst place to be if you were hoping to make parole. The best place for quiet in the cell blocks. The worst place for informers. The best place for food. The worst place for library books. The best place if you could learn by observing and be silent until spoken to. The worst place if you had a big mouth.

It was in this atmosphere that the idea began to take shape for Prisoners’ Digest International (originally called Penal Digest International), a newspaper with two purposes: to provide prisoners with a voice that prison authorities could not silence and to establish lines of communication between prisoners and people in the free world.

He got out of jail in December 1969 and settled in Iowa City to begin attending classes at Iowa State University. An assistantship through the communications department enabled him to spend the summer of 1970 travelling through Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas tape recording prisoners and law enforcement personnel for a series of half-hour radio shows. Naturally he shared his vision with everyone he could. His effort paid off. By the time he returned to Iowa City, articles had arrived in the mail from prison newspaper editors, poets, artists, and others all over the country. One interviewee was Sarah T. Hughes, the federal judge who had administered the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson while “Jackie, stunned and bloodied, looked on” after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Judge Hughes provided a feature article for the front page of the first issue.

But articles, poems, and artwork alone weren’t enough to produce a paper. Joe’s vision and his infectious energy pulled together a distinguished board of prison reformers and advocates, lawyers, and patrons who served multiple purposes, perhaps most important of which were credibility, connections, and cash to produce a shoestring operation. At the same time, he attracted—and writes lovingly about—a devoted collective of ex-cons, community folks, neighbor kids, and out-of-town visitors, including Jerry Samuels, who, under the name Napoleon XIV, wrote and sang “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha”—and me, I might add.

The first PDI came out in spring 1971. During the PDI’s brief history, Joe and the collective did more than just publish stories and poems from prisoners—which by itself would have made for a proud legacy. As with the best of the Vietnam era’s underground newspapers, they made news—and then reported on it. They stopped the extradition of an Arkansas escapee, ended an innocent Indian boy’s six years in prison, bought a college, exposed behavior-modification experiments on prisoners through insider stories of surviving inmates, shared victories and defeats of jailhouse lawyers, advocated for improvements in prison medical facilities for men and women, stood up for prisoners outside Attica before the guards stormed the prison, and much more.

Along the way Joe shares other stories as well:

  • about meeting and befriending Cuban revolutionaries in pre-Castro Cuba;
  • about the first and only underground newspaper produced inside the walls of Leavenworth, under Joe’s leadership;
  • about the financial support he received for PDI from labor legend Jimmy Hoffa and Playboy magazine; and
  • about the time during the mid-thirties, at the height of the Depression, when Joe was just a tyke, when his beloved mother, Magda Christine, took a young female singer named Norma Deloris Egstrom, who was renting a room next to theirs, under her wings when she was a struggling runaway teenager. That young singer later adopted the first name of Joe’s mom—who was known as Peggy—and the middle name of his brother, Duane Lee. You may have heard of her: Peggy Lee.

The last PDI came out in spring of 1974, though it was dated December 1973. As Joe writes, “Had our own burnout and financial failure not brought us down when it did, the government was standing by with an elaborate plan that they were already developing. It’s an ending to the story that I must share with you.”

So I’ll let him. Get yourself a copy of this funny, energizing, inspirational, important story.

Volume 4 of Voices Series Is Out!

Volume 4 of the four-volume Voices from the Underground Series, Joe Grant’s Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off: A Brief History of the Prisoners’ Digest International, is now out. I received my author copies last week and immediately ordered my first shipment for resale. Pre-orders were shipped out yesterday and should arrive in a few days. In my next post, I’ll give an overview of the book.

But for now I want to talk about the series as a whole, which is its own story. It’s been an amazing adventure that goes back a quarter of a century. If someone had said to me, “Ken, how about editing a series of stories on what will be seen commercially as an esoteric topic that will be hostile to the mainstream publishing world, rendering your chances of successful publication precarious, and that will take twenty-five years to complete?,” I’d have laughed and walked away. Or I would have politely pointed out my shaky financial straits and noted the infeasibility of spending so much potential income-producing time on a project that might never come to fruition let alone produce income.

Fortunately, I had no idea it would take me so long because once I started I couldn’t stop. Momentum is a powerful force; once you have the vision, you can’t pretend you don’t without resorting to mind-deadening drugs, which I’ve never used.

And the truth was, that esoteric topic from the late eighties when the Voices from the Underground Series was born—the long-forgotten underground press of the Vietnam era—was the most important news medium and antiwar organizing tool of my generation’s formative years. The antiwar community during the Vietnam era was the broadest, most diverse antiwar community in the history of our country. No exceptions. It cut across the races, the genders, the ages, the classes, the geographic regions. And there were underground papers that spoke to all of those antiwar voices.

To those of us who were active on underground papers, it was our most important formative event. We boomers have been unfairly derided for being self-centered, spoiled, divisive, and pampered, but we were selfless in stopping a war that we didn’t start, that had no business being waged, and of which our own government was the enemy. No other generation has ever done that. For that we were heroes, except to the war profiteers who ran our country and still do; the elected officials who they bought with their campaign donations; and the corporate press whose mindless support for the war was the reason the underground press was born.

So while many antiwar veterans and their allies “went inside themselves” after the war, partly through burnout from being full-time antiwar activists and partly so they could enter the corporate work force and begin raising families, the war industry rolled up their sleeves and began the work of getting us back into the military mood. (Remember what Bush #1 said when the fighting stopped after he invaded Iraq for the first time: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”) By the time the late eighties rolled around, the country had freaked out from seeing our true soul ripped bare and believing the corporate media’s interpretation, and we collectively had swung way to the right. Reagan was president and members of my generation who had fought alongside me against the war machine were running from themselves, hiding who they were, even from their children. My students at Eastern Michigan University typified the younger generation of the time. They admired Reagan, thought Rush Limbaugh made sense, and had no idea what their parents had done during the war.

It was in that atmosphere that a publisher friend who ran a small stable of library journals, including one devoted to the needs of serials librarians, asked me—because I had written a history of the Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan-area underground press some years back—to edit a series of insider histories of underground papers so that young serials librarians would gain a better understanding of serials from the sixties and seventies. I embraced the opportunity and immediately began to reactivate and expand my network of underground press veterans. The special collections libraries at University of Michigan and Michigan State University were invaluable.

What I found, much to my delight, was a scattered community of proud activists, like me, who had never forsaken their radical, activist roots and were still passionately involved in the cause of building a progressive community in the United States. They embraced my invitation to share their stories. In all the years since the Vietnam War had ended, no one had ever asked them so they were sitting on priceless literary and historical material. My job was to read and edit their stories and then coax them to give me more: “What do you mean by that?” “Who is she?” “Please clarify.” “How did you feel then?” “What happened next?” I asked every question I could think of and then asked follow-up questions in response to their answers. Never did they say, “Hey, that’s enough already.” Instead they dug deeper and produced more material.

The result was over 600 pages of stories, laid out in an 8 ½ x 11, 2-column format, the equivalent of a 1,500-page book in the traditional 6 x 9 or 7 x 10 format, plus another 150 pages, same layout, of resource materials on the period. Instead of publishing one special issue, we ran articles for the next year and a half.

Even then, I had compiled a collection that was so massive some stories still remained unpublished. I knew we had to publish them all in book form—actually two books, one of the stories and one of the resource materials.

Unfortunately, my publisher friend balked. He began to worry that he would be sued for libel. Being a small publisher who had already gone nearly bankrupt twice to win two previous libel lawsuits, he was scared he wouldn’t survive another one, even if he won, despite the great publicity I told him he would get. His worst image was of a guy who had been a flaming SDS’er—a member of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society—twenty years ago and was now a bigwig in the Republican Party suing us for ruining his reputation.

I said, “If we can document it, it’s not libel.” But I knew my time with him was up.

I started looking for a new publisher.

I found an agent who loved the manuscript. He was talking a high five-figure advance and claiming the movie rights. “I just want to pay off the Visa,” I said.

So he sent it out to corporate publishers. Here’s what they said:

  • “an important collection of underground press histories….”
  • “an impressive piece of scholarship…”
  • One editor apologized for taking so long to return the manuscript. He said he “was busy reading it.”
  • Another said, “couldn’t put it down … extraordinary book … rave rejection.”

They loved it. But they didn’t want to publish it.

Being an agent, he was in it for the money, not the cause. He returned the manuscript and suggested that I approach a small press. I thought, if I have to go to a small press, I might as well become the press. And so I knew: to be able to tell the story of the underground press, I would need to create my own underground press all over again.

All I needed was $18,000.

It fell to Joe Grant to find an investor. Joe is an ex-prisoner from Leavenworth who in 1970 founded Penal Digest International [later Prisoners’ Digest International], an underground paper with a paid circulation of over 20,000 prisoners from all over the world. Joe was outside Attica Prison with William Kunstler, the most renowned movement lawyer of the period, during the riots there in 1971. His story begins in pre-revolutionary Cuba in 1952 when he was stationed there in the navy and met Cubans who were actively involved in the revolution.

I was working on Joe’s story with him during the time my agent was sending me the rejection letters, so he knew my whole story.

Joe found an investor to enable him to print 2,000 copies of volume one and 2,000 of volume two. We typeset it and laid it out ourselves on WordPerfect 5.1. We obtained pre-publication quotes from famous people saying nice things about us. Our logo was a white rose, in memory of a group of students in Nazi Germany named the White Rose who opposed Hitler and were killed for their convictions. In this way, we linked our generation of independent poets and writers to an earlier generation of independent poets and writers. We called the company Mica Press after the gentle and legendary Mica—which is what he changed his name to from Michael in the eighties—Kindman, who died of AIDS soon after completing his story for me, which in this second edition is volume 2 of the Voices from the Underground Series, My Odyssey through the Underground Press. We had a collective dedication page for all the contributors. Our copyright date was January 29, 1993, to commemorate the 156th birthday of Thomas Paine.

The book came out to great acclaim. The Los Angeles Times said it captured the sights and feel and texture of the period better than any book out there. The reviewer for In These Times called it the most important book on American journalism published in his lifetime. Choice magazine named it one of the top five books in the field of communication for 1993. I was giving keynote talks at political conferences.

But for the most part, the nationwide mainstream media, including most of the over 200 dailies that requested and received copies, didn’t review it. And so overall sales through the mail were modest. Most went to public and academic libraries around the world. We were beginning to build our own distribution network. The money from sales I sent back to Joe was absorbed in promotional costs.

Then, less than a year after the book hit the streets, Joe’s remaining inventory of books were confiscated from storage by the man whose mother gave Joe the money to print Voices. He claimed Joe ripped off his mother and demanded all the money back immediately.

After the man confiscated the books, his lawyer told Joe that all the books would be returned to him if he would sign a promissory note stating that he had received the money from the son and not the mother. However, since the son was a drug dealer and informer who was doing time for selling cocaine, Joe believed that signing such a note would implicate him and everything connected with Voices. All his computers and his business would be seized by the government.

In a letter to me, the son acknowledged he made a mistake (getting busted for drugs, not stealing the books from Joe) but insisted that he was really a good person who would love to share his ideas with me on how to market Voices. Joe said bullshit. “He wore a government wire when he sold his drugs to unsuspecting users,” Joe told me. “That’s general knowledge. He’s in prison because he was running a drug business on the side that the government only discovered when he sold drugs, with his wire turned off, to another informer who had his wire turned on.” Joe believed the government was after him—Joe, not the son—for past political activity and when they couldn’t get him they settled for the books. Nothing of their business arrangement was ever put down on paper.

Joe and I, however, did. As publisher he agreed that if Mica Press went out of business, I, as editor, would automatically inherit all outstanding copies. Those, of course, were the books that were confiscated.

So technically that left me in ownership of 1,000 copies of volume 1, the stories, and 1,000 copies of volume 2, the resource guide, but in possession of none of them. I did own and possess all rights to the collection.

I considered legal action against the guy who stole them but I was discouraged by well-meaning movement lawyers who warned me that, even if I could get pro bono legal help from a movement lawyer who believed in the cause, the other costs—legal briefs, travel, appeals, and others—would be so much that, even if I won and then sold all the books, I would never see financial daylight. By this time I had a growing family and a heavy debt load, which further demanded my attention.

So I reacted like any hyperactive with depressive tendencies would react. I went into a depression that took me years to climb out of. Along the way, I lost contact with my contributors. But I never lost the conviction that the stories deserved to come out again, and needed to, for a wider audience.

Today I believe that more passionately than ever before. It’s no mistake that in order to start new wars the power structure that runs this country wanted to bury the lessons of the Vietnam era, especially the one that says that common citizens, working together, can overcome our ingrained prejudices; respect our ethnic, gender, religious, and other differences; honor the environment; change the policies of a corporate-controlled war-machine government; bring our troops home from countries where we don’t belong or not send them there in the first place; and use the money we save to build our own country’s infrastructure and create services and jobs that help everyone, not just the 1%.

Five years ago I finally was able to reorganize my life to make room for a second attempt to publish the stories. My success was due to many factors.

I’m grateful to the Internet, without which there is no way I could have tracked down all of the contributors. I’m grateful to all of the writers for giving me permission to use their stories again and working patiently with me to update their stories, which by now were all dated. I’m grateful to the many photographers and artists who gave me permission to use their work, more often than not gratis. I’m grateful to Michigan State University Press for buying into my vision of changing the 600+-page volume of stories from the first edition into four separate volumes in this second revised, updated, expanded edition, and for their craftsmanship in producing the four volumes. I’m grateful to so many activists and progressive journalists from then and now for their kind words, in the forewords and afterwords to the four volumes, in reviews, and in testimonial quotes that appear on the back covers and on my website. I’m grateful to all of those restaurants that gave me unlimited booth space, electricity, and coffee to do so much of my work. I’m grateful to my friends and family for giving me encouragement. Most of all, I am grateful to Emily, David, and Carrie, who for many years didn’t have much of a husband or father because he was lost in a competing vision of love and despair and had to find his way out alone.