"Don't you know about the bird? Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word."
– "Surfin' Bird," The Trashmen, 1963
The Bird was more than a word. It was hundreds of thousands of words, now enshrined in 10 volumes of articles, rants, cartoons and photos tucked away on shelves at the Virginia-Highland home of Stephanie Coffin. The Bird — the Great Speckled Bird — was a newspaper, a state of mind, a beacon of dissent, a cultural marker.
"It was a goddamn stubborn publication," says Neill Herring, the indefatigable Georgia environmentalist who savors memories of his youthful days as a Birdfolk. "It was really good at finding stories in the oddest places. It made Atlanta, hell it made the South, wake up to the 20th century."
The Bird was born on March 15, 1968, and exploded with success, due in large part to the huge hippie community that congregated in Midtown. "One reason we did well was that everybody sold it," recalls Gene Guerrero, a founder who now works as a lobbyist for criminal justice reform in Washington, D.C. "Kids were coming to Atlanta, many of them running away from home. They could stop by the Bird office, pick up a bundle, sell the papers and pay for their first meal in Atlanta."
Within a half year, the paper went from biweekly to weekly with 22,000 paid circulation. It was a leftist journal that adroitly met the capitalist test of matching demand with supply. But as the circulation-driving force of the Vietnam War waned, the paper was forced in 1976 to reduce itself to a monthly. Then, as Steve Wise, one of the paper's founders, puts it, "The Bird had its first last issue in October 1976. We tried to revive it in 1984, but we had the last last issue in January 1985."
Although a couple of months tardy, the Birdfolk, Bird readers and a lot of Atlanta's activists, many of whom weren't born when the Bird last flew, will gather on May 24 to celebrate the newspaper's 40th birthday. "It could be our last hurrah," sighs Bob Goodman, another founder.
Looking at copies of the Bird today – one disintegrated into dust in my hands as I opened it (fortunately, Coffin and others have boxes of old issues) – it's a quick time warp to another era, but one with many similarities to today. There was a horrible man in the White House – Tricky Dick then. And there was an unpopular war, the product of deceitful spin, and the government's wholesale attack on liberties created national angst.
Thinking people were dismayed by the lies, pandering and timidity of the mainstream media ("capitalist press" is the general reference in the Bird), and invented new ways to communicate – today, it's mostly the Internet; four decades ago it was via "underground" papers, which became a vital artery for news. For example, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, most famous for exposing the My Lai Massacre of Vietnamese women and children by U.S. soldiers, for years couldn't get the major media to print his dispatches. Papers such as the Bird carried the news. Similarly, while the major papers in the South repeated the smears about activists such as MLK in an effort to undermine civil rights – that era's version of "fair and balanced" Faux News reporting – the movement news was a staple of the in-your-face underground press.
Even the hated corporate media occasionally gave a nod to the Bird. CBS "60 Minutes" anchor Mike Wallace declared the Bird was "the Wall Street Journal of the underground press." The Bird was happy for the mention, but stressed that Wallace referred to the newspaper's journalistic quality, not its politics.
The FBI didn't concur with Wallace's assessment. Framed on Coffin's wall is a "confidential" FBI memo that makes it clear Big Brother was keeping a close eye on the newspaper.
That was because the Bird made the mighty squirm in Atlanta. The first issue's front page contained a scathing mock obituary for a then still-alive journalism sacred cow, Constitution Editor Ralph McGill. The Bird decried McGill's defense of the Vietnam War as "subtle deceit." The Bird was relentless in attacking the Atlanta elite and Georgia Power, and in championing issues seldom mentioned in polite conversation at the Piedmont Driving Club – issues such as gay rights, unions and women's liberation.
Somewhat oddly, the Bird was also acclaimed for its coverage of country and western music. Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings and other greats from the day lauded the newspaper at a time when, as Guerrero recalls, "country and western singers were treated with about the same respect as pro wrestlers."
The newspaper's name comes from a traditional song made famous by country music legend Roy Acuff – the tune quotes from Jeremiah 12:9, "Mine heritage is unto me as a great speckled bird, the birds 'round about are against her."
Indeed, Atlanta's civic fowl were aligned against the uppity Bird. Vendors were hassled by cops, and in one raid 75 Birdfolk were arrested on charges ranging from "occupying a dive" to "profane language." The newspaper scoffed, and ran a cover featuring a gun-toting revolutionary standing in front of a Coca-Cola sign with the message: "Come and get it, motherfucker." Talk about Atlanta sacrilege! "That got us in a bit of trouble," Goodman recalls.
Attesting to the Bird's impact, in 1972, the newspaper's offices were firebombed. No one was ever charged with the crime.
The administration of then-Mayor Sam Massell was a frequent punching bag. "We went after one scandal after another," Wise recalls.
With that in mind, perhaps the greatest tribute to the Bird comes from its old nemesis, Massell. "It told the other side of the story," recalls the former mayor, who now heads the Buckhead Coalition. "They were courageous and they faced many adversaries who tried to put them out of business. They exposed things others failed to cover. All in all, Atlanta is a better city because it had the Bird."
For more information on the Great Speckled Bird reunion, go to www.greatspeckledbird.org. Through May 18, the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library downtown is hosting an exhibit of covers, graphics and articles from the Great Speckled Bird.
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