It certainly wasn’t slick, and its name opted for irony over elegance. But this brash little upstart called The Rag would introduce to Austin a new kind of journalism passionate and involved—and its impact on the community would be felt for years to come.
From coverage of antiwar marches to Black Panthers, from expose’s on the UT Regents to incidents of police brutality, from poetry espousing sexual liberation to the source for critical news about the South Texas Nuclear Project, The Rag became a weekly reader for a wide swath of Austin’s counterculture, peace movement, feminist movement, coop movement and the nascent anti-nuclear movement. And it became a “must read” for the established powers as well.
The Rag was in the advance guard of the fledgling underground press movement. Born of the activist wave of the sixties and of the emerging countercultural community, these newspapers—some hand-done and homey, others marked by intricate and colorful psychedelic art—were popping up like mushrooms around the country, especially on the nation’s university campuses. They were a response to one-sided reporting of the escalating Vietnam War and to a virtual press blackout of the growing forces of opposition. Many of the newspapers also emerged as a direct expression of the alternative values and lifestyles of the counterculture.
The Rag, which hit the Austin streets on October 10, 1966, was the sixth member of the Underground Press Syndicate, a loose association of papers whose affiliates would eventually number more than 100. Responding in part to a rightward turn by the student paper, the Daily Texan, Jeff Shero (Nightbyrd) gathered a group of fellow Austin activists—including Gary Thiher, Alice Embree, Thorne Dreyer and Carol Neiman—for a series of exploratory meetings. The response was enthusiastic, and The Rag was off and running.
Initially, The Rag’s editorial functions were coordinated by Thorne Dreyer and Carol Neiman, who were tagged “funnel” and “funnella” in lieu of the more authoritarian sounding “editor.” The founders of The Rag decided to buck a trend in the underground press and to aim the paper equally at the political and countercultural communities of Austin, considering them to be interactive parts of one broad movement for fundamental change.
The Rag would become virtually indistinguishable from the community it served, helping to coalesce and mobilize the movement in Austin, both as a news source and as a direct agent of change. It would exert significant influence nationally, becoming what historian Laurence Leamer called “one of the few legendary undergrounds.”
“The Rag covered what was not covered by the ‘straight’ press,” Embree recalls. “Antiwar actions, the 13th Floor Elevators, Kenneth Threadgill at the Split Rail, the antics of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the emerging feminist movement, and more—all of it found a voice in The Rag. The writers participated in the political and cultural uprising and also wrote about it. And they told you where to get a chicken dinner for 35 cents (at the Stallion).”
In addition to regular cartoons by Gilbert Shelton of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers fame, The Rag featured local psychedelic artists like Kerry Awn and Jim Franklin, one-of-a-kind film reviews of European and Third World films, interviews with “outlaw” musicians like Townes Van Zandt, all topics largely ignored by the mainstream press.
Former Ragstaffer Kerry Awn was still in high school when he drew his first Rag cover for the February 20th, 1967 issue. Awn, along with fellow artists Gilbert Shelton and Jim Franklin, became icons of Austin’s psychedelic Rock and Roll poster art.
Alan Pogue who became “staff” photographer for The Rag from 1969 to 1977, has amassed a body of work spanning 35 years. Pogue, a Vietnam Veteran, rarely received compensation for thousands of photos taken of Rag covered events, from anti-war sit-ins to police brutality marches, from women’s protests for reproductive rights to the Boat race rallies on Town lake.
Pogue describes his reasons for working for The Rag: “When I was a soldier in Vietnam, I realized that religious institutions, the educational system, and the press had failed to tell me the truth about the war. My ignorance nearly cost me my life. What I saw in Vietnam changed my mind, so I took that lesson and applied my photographic talent to The Rag. The large media were rarely able to tell much truth, so while they paid more and were slicker, the truth value of The Rag kept me there until the last issue.”
Beginning in 1970, The Rag initiated a legacy that has been carried on by every alternative weekly since—weekly coverage of Austin city politics. Writers such as Hunter Ellinger, Bill Meacham, Judy and Lin Smith, Daryl Janes and Peter Davis pioneered City Council coverage from original perspectives in columns such as “ The City Council Report” and “City Council Circus.” Coverage of neighborhood protests of gentrification, labor disputes like the three year-long Economy Furniture Strike, emerging critiques of nuclear power, the women’s movement fight to end rape all found space in The Rag, when few other media outlets paid attention.
The last three years of publication saw an increased focus on local issues, according to Ragstaffers Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale, who helped write and produce The Rag during its last years.
“The founding fathers (and mothers) could not have imagined a more democratic process than a Rag copy meeting,” recalls Scott. “An all volunteer group of self-taught editors and copy writers, we debated the sexism and violence in pornography, the corporate influence in utility policies, and the CIA’s involvement in Chile—all in the scope of a few hours.”
“What topics got space, what went to Co-ops, what went to the Free Clinic benefit, how much to the anti-apartheid struggle, how much for the Freak Brothers—all of it worked out by consensus,” said Scott.
“The Rag provided in-depth coverage of issues the daily press passed over,“ Croxdale remembers. “ The taxpayer cost and environmental hazards of the South Texas Nuclear Project, the Shuttlebus drivers strike of 1976, the co-op movement—The Rag was an important source for news and analysis you could not get anywhere else.”
Hunter Ellinger, who participated in The Rag editorial group from 1973-75, covered electoral politics, institutional finance, and energy issues. For Ellinger, a former ACC Board Trustee, The Rag’s strength was its diversity of viewpoints. “The Rag's glory was that it channeled not one but many voices. Our job was to get the facts and the arguments out there—it was up to readers to select what rang true for them.”
For Thorne Dreyer, who, along with Embree wrote for The Rag in its early years, the happily unpolished weekly filled a much needed space as an alternative voice: “It always played the gadfly, challenging established notions and confronting the powers-that-be.” Dreyer moved to Houston in 1969 and, along with early Rag staffers Dennis and Judy Fitzgerald, helped found another alternative paper, Space City News (later Space City!).
Former Ragstaffers, numbering over 150, have gone on to make their contributions to family and society in many different directions. Some are now college professors. Others are lawyers, judges, journalists, doctors, teachers, scientists, union organizers, artists, musicians, and state employees. A few are elected officials. Former staffer Doyle Nieman is a state representative in Maryland. Steve Russell, a former district judge in Austin, now teaches at Indiana University. Hunter Ellinger is a former Austin Community College Trustee. Alice Embree served as a strategic planner for the state’s child support program until her retirement. Kerry Awn and Jim Franklin have established careers as artists in central Texas. Glenn Scott has worked as a union organizer for the past 23 years. Richard Croxdale has taught economics at ACC for 25 years. Former funnella Carol Neiman, now Sarito Carol Neiman, a published author and editor, now lives in New York, where she is editorial director for the contemporary mystic organization Osho International.
The underground newspapers often met with establishment opposition, harassment and even legal action. In Austin, the UT Regents sued The Rag to prevent circulation on campus. David Richards, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully defended The Rag’s First Amendment rights before the Supreme Court.
First 12 issues of The Rag are available online.