FLOTSAM & JETSAM: 60 years on the case

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

60 years on the case

 Sam Smith – In September, it will be sixty years since your editor first published a journal belonging to what became known as the “underground press.” This journal, The Idler, was joining lonely territory mainly occupied by the NYC’s Village Voice. But two years later, in 1966 the Underground Press Syndicate was formed with the participation of five newspapers and by 1970 where were at least 457 underground papers.

Although they haven’t been given much credit, these papers were essential to the changes we associate with the 1960s. As RB Frick wrote: “From political assassinations and a war in Vietnam to the Civil Rights Movement, the Sixties had a profound impact on the future of the United States… While at first glance the Underground Press may not seem like an extremely important element of the Sixties, the Press helped to spread the elements of the Counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement across the United States.”

Getting into print journalism was a novelty for me, then in my mid twenties, for my previous experience had been in radio, including having been news director of the Harvard student radio station and then working as a reporter for the prominent Washington all news station WWDC and covering everything from murders and fires to White House news conferences.

My goals in starting the Idler were less than noble. As I later wrote:

While looking around for a good title for this magazine, I happened to run across some of the writings of old Sam Johnson. Sam Johnson wrote a series of essays from I753 to 1760 in a paper called The Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette. The pieces appeared as The Idler.  The name seemed to fit as comfortably as a pair of sneakers after a good summer’s use. In his first essay, Johnson described The Idler: “The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours that are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think everything more valuable as it is harder to be acquired… The Idler, tho’ sluggish is yet alive, arid may descend into profoundness, or tower into sublimity; for the diligence of an Idler is rapid and impetuous, as ponderous bodies forced into velocity move with violence proportionate to their weight.”

In the first issue was a five page article by Rocky Whitman on the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, an early effort to register southern black voters organized by a coalition of civil rights organiztions including SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC.

The Idler only lasted a few years. I was living on Washington’s Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that unlike its namesake was of mixed ethnicity and economics. I became increasingly fascinated, finally starting a newspaper there – the Capitol East Gazette -  which expanded its geography to include many more black blocks. I also joined the civil rights group SNCC, providing media assistance to its local leader, Marion Barry.

When the 1968 riots struck DC, two of its four most heavily hit business districts were in our circulation area and one of them four blocks from our house. Afterwards I would say that too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers.