An aging hippie limps into Aurora Coffee and takes a seat beneath the concert flyers that cover the wall. He drops a plastic grocery bag onto the sticky countertop, lifts out a pile of old newspapers folded in half. The hippie has sunken cheeks and a gray beard, a thick mustache and a full head of short, graying hair. He’s wearing tennis shoes and a T-shirt with a cartoon bird on the front, its wing curled into a fist. His papers—well, they’ve yellowed over the years, and the ink has faded, the pages turned brittle. He bends one of the copies carefully at the spine.
“If you open them too fast, they’ll tear,” Steve Wise says, slowly folding back the first page of a copy of the Great Speckled Bird. This issue is forty-two years and seven months beyond its publication date. With pride, he points to an essay he wrote titled “Southern Consciousness.” Wise had written: “Southern Consciousness is based on an impulse that originates in the very depths of the Southern soul, in the intense and profound feelings for the rootedness of a society, no matter how much corrupted . . . Liberate the South!”
Photograph courtesy of Georgia State University
The Bird was first published in 1968, during one of the most tempestuous times in the history of our country—especially the South, which was still in for a lot of liberating. It was the city’s first underground paper and became one of the biggest and most widely read in the region, with 27,000 readers at its peak. When Mike Wallace profiled the Bird on 60 Minutes in 1971, he called it “the Wall Street Journal of the underground press.”
Half a lifetime before Twitter and Facebook, the Bird acted in the same fashion, and in the spirit of what social media has become: a tool for mobilization, a civic rallying cry, a chronicle for news that the mainstream media chooses not to cover, and, above all, an outlet where anyone can have a voice. You could walk into its offices, manuscript in hand, and have your story, poem, or artwork published.
Wise, a Virginia native then in his mid-twenties, had an even thicker beard and hair down to his shoulders. As a member of the Southern Student Organizing Committee (an activist group that focused on civil rights and opposition to the war), and a new leftist with a history degree from Emory, he hung out with the Bird staff in a three-story house on Fourteenth Street across from where Colony Square now stands. A collective of writers, photographers, poets, and cartoonists, they banged out copy on typewriters, cutting and pasting pages on layout tables. They called the house the Birdhouse. Wise wrote about music and politics, edited stories written by anti-war GIs, sold ads, and even took rucksacks full of 300 copies to Lenox Square—then an outdoor mall—where he sold the paper for twenty cents to weekend shoppers and teenagers, which helped supplement his meager staff salary of less than $50 a week. Several times he tried to sell a copy to one of the Bird’s favorite targets, Ralph McGill, outside the office of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill did not buy.