Great Speckled Bird
Published in Atlanta from 1968 to 1976, the Great Speckled Bird was one of the longest-running and highest quality underground newspapers of the era. Reporting on both politics and popular culture, the Bird, as it was commonly known, linked left-leaning activists and rebellious youth throughout Georgia and across the South.
The Great Speckled Bird, named after a traditional folk song of the same name made popular by country musician Roy Acuff, originated among Atlanta's small community of New Left activists, particularly those associated with Emory University. After publishing an anti–Vietnam War (1964-73) newsletter on Emory's campus during the fall of 1967, graduate students Tom and Stephanie Coffin met that December with students from other local colleges, as well as with regional political activists, in the hopes of creating a multicampus underground newspaper. The talks resulted in the formation of the Great Speckled Bird.
The first issue was published in March 1968, and the newspaper became so popular with the Atlanta New Left and countercultural communities that within six months it went from being a biweekly newspaper to a weekly publication. A large part of its appeal lay in the variety of stories it published. While many other underground papers dealt solely with politics, the Bird also allotted space to the counterculture. A typical issue would contain a story about antiwar protests alongside a review of a recent rock concert. It frequently published articles on the women's movement, abortion, racial issues, and gay liberation.
The organization and leadership of the newspaper reflected the leftist politics of the time. While editors reviewed and corrected stories, the decisions regarding which articles to publish were made during the weekly staff meeting, where a popular vote determined the paper's content. Staff members would also rotate in and out of the various editor positions on a semi-regular basis. Former Bird staffers believe that this approach kept internal conflicts to a minimum while helping to maintain the high quality of journalism for which the paper became known.
The Great Speckled Bird staff relied on a network of volunteers to sell the newspaper on street corners, college campuses, and in high schools. The radical content of the paper and the "hippie" dress of the volunteers often led to harassment from local authorities. Atlanta police, for various reasons, arrested people selling the newspaper on street corners, on charges ranging from jaywalking to distributing pornographic material. City building and fire inspectors routinely visited the house on Fourteenth Street in which the staff worked, and schools banned the publication from their campuses. In 1972 the Bird's offices were firebombed.
By the summer of 1970 the Great Speckled Bird had become the largest paid weekly newspaper in Georgia, with a circulation of 23,000 copies. That number declined, however, over the next several years, and by 1976 the newspaper experienced severe financial difficulties. Several factors contributed to the Bird's problems, including the disappearance of the Atlanta counterculture, the loss of advertising revenue, and internal squabbles among the staff.
Despite efforts to keep the newspaper afloat, the final issue was published in October 1976. During its eight-year existence, the Great Speckled Bird symbolized and spoke for the New Left and counterculture in Georgia and the Deep South. It maintains a place of significance in the story of America's underground newspapers.