The nation’s first and most successful underground paper of the Sixties, the Los Angeles Free Press (the “Freep”) at its peak in 1970 published forty-eight pages every week, had a guaranteed paid circulation of 85,000, and boasted a “faithful readership” estimated at a quarter of a million. At the time, among alternative weeklies, only the Village Voice, started a decade earlier, had more readers. The Freep’s founder, Art Kunkin (1928–2019) was not a naïve hippie or flower child, but rather an experienced Old Left journalist. When he published the first issue in 1964, he was thirty-five and already a movement elder. A New Yorker who had gone to Bronx High School of Science, he had become a tool and die maker, and—by then a Marxist—joined the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP), working at GM and Ford in the 1950s and becoming business manager of the SWP newspaper, the Militant. In the early 1960s he moved to L.A. and, he says, “went back to school to become a history professor.” A faculty member asked whether he wanted to work on a new Mexican-American newspaper, the East L.A. Almanac. It published eight pages, once a month, 5,000 copies, and was associated with MAPA, the new Mexican American Political Association, headed by Edward Roybal—the first Latino on the L.A. City Council, and later the first Latino member of Congress from California. “I was the political editor,” Kunkin said, “listed on the masthead as Arturo, and I’m writing about garbage collections in East Los Angeles.” By that time he had left the SWP, joined the less radical Socialist Party, and become its Southern California chairman: “I was working closely with Norman Thomas and with Erich Fromm, the famous psychologist,” he said. “I wrote some resolutions with Fromm against the Democratic Party drift of the Socialist Party.”
He started planning the Freep in January 1963, after a visit from the FBI. They had read his criticisms of LBJ in the East L.A. Almanac, and asked whether he was a Communist and whether he could identify names on a list of suspected Communists. He told them he was a socialist and an anti-communist, and that he refused to talk about other people. Two days later, after the FBI visited the East L.A. Almanac, he was fired. He had long been complaining to friends hanging out at the Sunset Strip coffee shop Xanadu about the Village Voice: while it excelled at covering the hip scene and ran some strong writing, politically it always supported liberal Democrats. People told Kunkin he couldn’t publish a Voice-type independent paper in L.A. because the city had no Greenwich Village; it was too spread out and fragmented, and besides, it would require at least $10,000 to get started. But Kunkin went ahead anyway, looking for financial backers…
The first stand-alone issue of the Freep was dated July 30, 1964. “A New Weekly,” it proclaimed in a front-page statement, “Why We Appear.” Kunkin opened by declaring that while the paper represented no party or group, “we class ourselves … among the liberals.” Of course, Kunkin himself was not a liberal; he had been a member of the SWP and at the time was a leader of the Socialist Party in L.A., which made it a point to criticize liberals. Apparently he thought that L.A. in 1964 was not ready for a paper that criticized liberals from the left. Kunkin did promise that the Freep would be “free enough to print material disagreeing with liberal organizations,” and indeed the paper would start doing that pretty quickly. But at the beginning, Kunkin declared his goal was “to link together the various sections of our far flung liberal community.” He also said “we do not plan to deal with national and international events”—instead, the paper would focus on Los Angeles. — from Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties*
Presented by Verso and the London School of Economics, the authors will be joined by Glyn Robbins.
SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE: L.A. IN THE SIXTIES—
Monday, June 8.
10 am on the West Coast; 1 pm East Coast.
*Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (New York: Verso, 2020).
From top: Angela Davis (left, with Che-Lumumba Club Leader Kendra Alexander) enters Royce Hall at UCLA for her first lecture in October 1969—attended by 2,000 students; Art Kunkin, courtesy and © the New York Times; Los Angeles Free Press, first stand-alone issue (following sample insert premiere issue); Los Angeles Free Press, vol. 3, no. 27; Gidra, UCLA’s radical Asian-American zine, courtesy Mike Murase; members of the Gidra staff pose in a photograph to protest exploitation of Asian females, photograph by Mike Murase, courtesy and © the photographer; Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, courtesy and © the authors and Verso, cover design by Matt Dorfman, cover photograph by Luis C. Garza, courtesy and © the photographer and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, youth from Florence in South Central L.A. arrive at Belvedere Park in East L.A. for La Marcha por la Justicia, January 31, 1971; Dorothy Healey, leader of the Communist Party of America, 1949, courtesy and © the Dorothy Healey Collection, California State University, Long Beach; Corita Kent, a passion for the possible, 1969, serigraph, courtesy and © the Corita Art Center.