Going Underground

John McMillian

John McMillian

Historian explores rise of underground press and alternative media

In the 1960s, minorities pushed for civil rights, citizens’ allegiances divided over the Vietnam War and a new generation questioned the values and beliefs of American society – with some seeking to reshape them in revolutionary ways.

These struggles and new, cheaper publishing technologies came together in just a few years to create a fertile landscape for an alternative news media that would challenge the status quo.

Assistant professor of history John McMillian chronicles the rise of underground newspapers in his new book, “Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America.” One question that has fascinated McMillian is why so many people became so radicalized within such a short time.

“How is it that by the early ’60s, people who are associated with activism are associated with liberal reformers and are generally well behaved, and by the end of the ’60s, you have, by one account, one million young people who answered a survey and said they were radical or revolutionary in 1969?” he said.

“Smoking Typewriters” examines this period of history through a unique lens, McMillian said, noting that many historians focusing on this timeframe zero in on the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) – the student organization that some see as the center of the era’s political radicalism.

“If you study the ’60s through the prism of SDS, you get sort of an elite or top-down perspective,” McMillian said. “If you study through the prism of the underground press, you correct a lot of those distortions.

“They were basically community newspapers; they had a lot of regional variations and they reflected the thinking of grassroots activists,” he said. “You get a more wide-ranging, bottom-up perspective if you look through these papers.”

The underground press faced many challenges. The mainstream press derided underground newspapers, and underground publishing operations faced harassment from the powers that be, including busts for obscenity, interference with street vendors and even physical attacks on their offices.

There are some commonalities between ’60s era underground newspapers and today’s use of the Internet to express views outside of the mainstream, McMillian said.

“The blogosphere has been credited with bringing like-minded people together and drawing attention to issues that the mainstream press has ignored, and it’s helping them to build a social movement,” he said. “Underground newspapers performed this role as well.”