Agitator Journalism: Remembering Ramparts

Many folks oriented toward the New Left in the 1960s and early 1970s have a story or two about Ramparts magazine. I personally discovered the periodical in a bookstore magazine rack in College Park, MD in late 1969. I was with a couple friends from high school. The November antiwar protests were over. My friends were buying some books for school and I was reading MAD magazine when I noticed the Ramparts cover. It featured Yippie Jerry Rubin wearing a bandolier and waving a gun. One of the featured articles was about the Pigasus campaign for president–a pointed spoof by the Yippies and others of the US presidential campaign in 1968. When my friends were ready to go, I purchased the issue along with a copy of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf and the latest issue of the local underground Quicksilver Times. A couple days later, I found out that the older brother of another friend of mine had several issues of Ramparts. Whenever I went to his house, I caught up on my reading while listening to his rock and roll collection.

Ramparts was a unique magazine in the annals of US publishing. Flashy, irreverent and replete with quality muckraking and commentary, it represented the unaffiliated segment of the antiwar and antiracist movements of the period. Originally begun as a liberal Catholic monthly in the early 1960s, by 1966 it was well on its way to being the primary journal read by those movement’s adherents. A big reason for its popularity and journalistic success was its early editorial leadership of Edward Keating and Warren Hinckle and the dynamics between the two men. Never truly financial successful, Ramparts challenged the mainstream magazine culture of Time and Life while publishing articles quoted and referred to by establishment heavies like the New York Times.

Writer Peter Richardson, editorial director of PoliPoint Press, has recently published a history of the magazine. The only such history, A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, does a worthy job of documenting the important moments in Ramparts history. He tells about its gradual shift from the liberal Catholic magazine envisioned by its founder to a radical journal championing the left wing of the antiwar movement and the Black liberation movement. Focused primarily on the years when Hinckle and Keating ran the magazine’s office, Richardson describes Hinckle’s fundraising adventures, his flamboyant and outrageous style, the editorial debates over certain stories and the effect some of those stories had on fundraising and their targets. He also discusses the reaction of the US government and its agencies to Ramparts stories like the 1967 piece on CIA funding of the National Student Association and other supposedly independent organizations. Richardson details the arrival of Eldridge Cleaver on the Ramparts staff, examines the magazine’s role in the antiwar movement and looks at its response to the growing feminist movement of the period.

Running behind Richardson’s narrative about the magazine’s editorial direction is another narrative about money. Rarely if ever showing a profit, Ramparts managed to publish for thirteen years. According to Richardson, much of this was due to Hinckle’s fundraising efforst. Also, according to Richardson, it was Hinckle who spent a good deal of the money. The magazine actually closed down for a couple months in the winter of 1968-1969. When it came back to life it was run by two new leftists who would eventually become ultra rightwingers: David Horowitz and Peter Collier. It was this incarnation of the magazine that I was most familiar with. Indeed, my subscription ran from 1970 until the magazine’s demise in 1975. Like the New Left itself, the Ramparts of this period reflected the ultra-radical sentiments of the period. It also attempted to address women’s issues in a genuinely non-sexist manner. Like the Hinckle-Keating creation, Ramparts under Horowitz and Collier continued to attract topnotch writers, despite its inability to pay well or at all.

If there is a fault with Richardson’s book, it would be his obsession with the relationship of the Black Panther Party to Ramparts. If anything, he over dramatizes the relationship while also overplaying it. One assumes that this is the result of his discussions with the aforementioned David Horowitz — neocon activist and Panther hater. This obsession tends to distract from the overall evenness of the book and lends more credibility to Horowitz than he deserves. Despite this detraction, A Bomb In Every Issue is an important addition to the history of the period known as the Sixties and a worthwhile read. It serves as a reminder of the powerful possibilities of the printed word and an inspiration to those of us who believe that journalism can be entertaining, intelligent and threaten the status quo.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.