What ever happened to Atlanta alt-weekly The Great Speckled Bird?

The Great Speckled Bird, Atlanta's radical underground weekly newspaper of the 60s and 70s, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 with an exhibit at the Fulton County Library and a birthday bash. Pictured is former staffers Stephanie Coffin and Steve Wise, looking over old issues at Coffin's Virginia Highland's home.
The Great Speckled Bird, Atlanta's radical underground weekly newspaper of the 60s and 70s, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 with an exhibit at the Fulton County Library and a birthday bash. Pictured is former staffers Stephanie Coffin and Steve Wise, looking over old issues at Coffin's Virginia Highland's home.

Welcome to "Actual Factual," a column in which I answer reader questions about goings-on in Atlanta. Here's one I did about whether a USPS semi-truck really broke down on Atlanta's bustling I-85.

Now that you're familiar, you'll find information for submitting your own questions at the bottom of this column. 

Reader question: What ever happened to The Great Speckled Bird?  

Atlanta's former underground newspaper, The Great Speckled Bird, ran from 1968 to 1976. The 50th anniversary of its founding is an opportunity for those familiar with the publication to reminisce on that era — but it's also a chance to introduce Atlanta transplants and a younger crowd to the publication and its history.

The short answer to what happened to it is explained on a Facebook page made for the upcoming event: “The Bird's sales force of hippies selling the paper on Atlanta's streets declined precipitously in the mid-1970s, and so too did the paper's circulation. In its last year, 1976, the paper switched to a monthly schedule. It also published a monthly edition in 1984 in a futile attempt to revive the paper.”

But the more interesting answer is what happened during the years it was alive.

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A decade ago, Stacy Shelton, a former staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, detailed the Bird's history for its 40th anniversary that was held at the B Complex in Capitol View. See information about the public 50th anniversary event a little further down, but first, Shelton's article is recounted in its entirety here:

In its first edition 40 years ago, Atlanta's independent newspaper for the hippie generation took aim at the big kahuna in town and never backed down.

In a front-page story titled "What's It All About, Ralphie?" the Great Speckled Bird announced itself with an attack on Ralph McGill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist of The Atlanta Constitution, who supported the Vietnam War. The early civil rights advocate had become "a leading exponent of U.S. imperialism and deception," said the Bird.

Anti-war sentiments fueled the startup of what became a weekly newspaper, but the Bird also covered such mind-bending issues as racism, women's liberation and gay rights. At every turn, it took on the establishment, from Coca-Cola to Georgia Power Co. to Atlanta city government.

Above all, the Bird was irreverent. Four-letter words, nude photos and bawdy cartoons routinely spiced up the pages, prompting then-Gov. Lester Maddox to ban the Bird's vending machines at the state Capitol.

The paper's Midtown office was firebombed. When its DeKalb County printer refused to print it anymore, staffers had to drive the proofs to the closest willing printer, in Montgomery.

It all started as a response to what many saw as inadequate coverage of the issues they cared about in the mainstream press.

"A small group of us felt the local newspaper was so conservative and so unwilling to take on any truth telling about the war in Vietnam," said state Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta), one of the Bird's founders along with her then husband, Gene Guerrero.

As hundreds of 20- and 30-something activists and free thinkers gravitated to the newspaper to write, draw, edit, set type, hawk papers and do odd jobs, the Bird became Atlanta's meeting place for progressive thought, Orrock said. Staff meetings would last for hours, a forum for equal-opportunity opinions.

"We were really part of the Tom Paines of our generation," she said.

The Bird reached national prominence in a 1971 television feature by "60 Minutes," which called it the Wall Street Journal of the underground press for its journalistic prowess.

Pictured is a hand-color photo of staffers during the Bird's heyday that was on display at an exhibit in 2008. (Rich Addicks / AJC)
Pictured is a hand-color photo of staffers during the Bird's heyday that was on display at an exhibit in 2008. (Rich Addicks / AJC)

Credit: Rich Addicks

Credit: Rich Addicks

It ceased publication in 1976. At one time it was the state's largest weekly, cresting at a circulation of about 22,000. A comeback attempt in the 1980s failed.

Orrock is one of the Bird's better known alumni. After a youth spent working in the civil rights movement on college campuses and alongside U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) and Julian Bond, she was elected to the General Assembly in 1986. In 2002, she became the state's first female majority whip for one term, before Republicans wrested control of the House in the 2004 elections.

Orrock, 64, has served one term as a state senator and is up for re-election this year. She is president of the national Women Legislators' Lobby, a program of Women's Action for New Direction that lobbies for redirecting military spending toward domestic programs including health care and environmental protection.

The Bird can count at least one other elected official among its alumni, Doyle Nieman. He is a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly.

Many others are active in the political process. Guerrero, Orrock's former husband, led the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union for 16 years and now lobbies for criminal justice reforms in Washington. Former staffer Neill Herring, who started at the Bird while attending Georgia State University, is now the chief political strategist and a leading lobbyist for the state's environmental movement.

READFlashback to 1968: 50 years ago in Georgia

Herring, 60, who lives in southeast Georgia, said the Bird taught him he could either make money or do good. He became a carpenter, working in Atlanta from 1968 to 1985.

"I decided that I would never make a whole lot of money and I would try to do the right thing," Herring said. "I made my money as a carpenter but spent most of my intellectual energy on political work."

Most of the Bird's "audacious band of young people," as Orrock called them, continued along the same ideological path they started down, former staffer Bob Goodman of Decatur said. One alumnus is a lawyer who defends conscientious objectors opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; another is a Native American activist in Oklahoma; and another is a labor organizer in New York.

Goodman, who retired from a series of jobs that included counseling low-income pregnant women, spends every Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. in front of CNN with the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, protesting the war in Iraq with signs that say things like "Bring the troops home now" and "Healthcare not warfare."

"I really look back on the Bird as one of the best times of my life," said Goodman, 67. "It was just a group of people without much money that started this newspaper on a shoestring which appealed to a whole lot of people and made a lot of waves and hung on for 8 1/2 years. It introduced Atlanta to new ideas.

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The half-century anniversary event takes place Saturday, June 2 from 4 to 9 p.m., with the program starting at 5 p.m. It'll be at the Chosewood Ballroom, 420 McDonough Blvd. SE.

Admission is $10 online or $12 at the door. Sing Out Defiance, a group that describes itself as "musicians, artists, activists and regular old singalong folks who want to make a positive difference in the world through writing, sharing and performing songs of resistance and defiance to the injustices of the Trump administration," is set to perform.

The theme is " Media Then and Now," and the program will "explore the continuing relevance of media that provides an alternative to the corporate mainstream," a press release said. Speakers include Amy Goodman, host of a radio show called Democracy Now; Hamilton Nolan, senior writer for Splinter News; and a panel of former Bird writers, tentatively to include former Black Panther member Tim Hayes and Bird co-founder Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.

The Great Speckled Bird digital collection is hosted by Georgia State University Library.

I am a staff writer with the AJC and a lover of Atlanta, my adopted home for nearly seven years after moving to Georgia from Florida. To submit “Actual Factual” questions, contact me at becca.godwin@ajc.com, @BeccaJGGodwin on Twitter or via the form below. Thanks.

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