April 1, 2015
A Bomb in Every Issue
Posted on Aug 21, 2009
In 1967, Hinckle shut down The Sunday Ramparts, leaving Wenner out of work. (Hinckle would briefly revive the paper as a daily during the San Francisco newspaper strike of 1968.) Within months, Wenner and Gleason conceived a new magazine and began assembling the first issue in a spare room at 301 Broadway. Later, Wenner moved his magazine’s office to a loft on Brannan Street over Garrett Press, which also printed Ramparts. At Gleason’s suggestion, Wenner named his magazine after a Bob Dylan song, and with Stermer’s permission, he lifted his design directly from The Sunday Ramparts. “I only had Ramparts and my high school yearbook as a model for the magazine,” Wenner said later. “We still use some of the elements from Ramparts.”
The first issue of Rolling Stone appeared in November 1967, and the magazine’s success became an important if largely unacknowledged part of Ramparts’ legacy. In his memoir, Hinckle disavowed Wenner and Rolling Stone:
A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America
By Peter Richardson
New Press, 272 pages
Hinckle was more deferential to Gleason, a key factor in Rolling Stone’s success. Hinckle later claimed that he was sorry he “dumped on [Gleason’s] flower children without giving him a chance to defend the little fascists.” But for Hinckle, the bloodshed at the Altamont rock concert in 1969, when the Hell’s Angels killed a spectator in front of the stage, was vindication of his theory that the “hippie cultists” aided the forces of fascism.
Gratuitous appeals to sex produced other jarring results. One cover story, “A Paranoid’s Guide to Bugging,” explored surveillance technology, a subject of great interest in the Ramparts office. The cover photo featured Carol Doda, the busty blonde stripper from a North Beach nightclub, in a black brassiere looking directly into the camera; a recording device peeked out of her waistband, and cords ran to two attachments on the bra near her nipples. Although brazen, the cover concept wasn’t radical so much as business as usual. If it demonstrated the staff’s explicit strategy—using mainstream techniques to advance leftist ideas—it also reflected that strategy’s limitations.
When the magazine addressed feminist concerns, it frequently fell short. Warren and Marianne Hinckle’s generally laudatory “Women Power” cover story of February 1968 was criticized for its reference to “narrow-minded bitches,” and the cover photograph caused a minor furor. The shot featured a female model’s cleavage, but her head was cropped out of the picture. The irony wasn’t lost on the female staff or readers, many of whom were organizing the first women’s groups. In awarding Warren Hinckle the “Male Chauvinist of the Month Award,” the March issue of Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement maintained that he “depicted ‘political women’ as having two tits and no head.”
As the Haight-Ashbury story and another CIA bombshell—this one on the agency’s secret funding of the National Student Association—reached large audiences, Eldridge Cleaver was assembling the Soul on Ice manuscript for McGraw-Hill. In May 1967, however, Cleaver accompanied Bobby Seale and seventeen other Panthers in full regalia to the state capitol in Sacramento. Their purpose was to protest a new gun control bill, which was widely regarded as a response to the Panthers’ armed patrols of Oakland’s black neighborhoods.
Predominantly white, sleepy, and surrounded by farmland, Sacramento was an unlikely venue for eighteen armed black militants. Brandishing their shotguns and M-16s, the Panthers were met by reporters before entering the capitol and striding into the legislative chamber. As cameras flashed, police officers confiscated the weapons and led the Panthers off the floor of the assembly with minimal resistance. Outside the building, Bobby Seale read Executive Mandate Number One to the press:
When they returned to their cars, Cleaver told Seale, “Brother, we did it. We did it, man. We put it over.” Seale replied, “That’s right, brother, we did.” Then Seale gave the order to leave. “Let’s go. We gonna go eat all this fried chicken that we got here, ’cause I’m hungry and it’s hot in this town.”
On their way out of town, the Panthers were arrested at a gas station. The arresting officer approached Seale’s car with his gun out. Seale directed him to holster his weapon. “And the next thing I heard was brothers jacking rounds, jacking shells off into the chambers of their guns,” he recalled. The officer holstered his gun, and the Panthers were arrested without further incident. The news coverage made them instant celebrities. Six Panthers, including Seale, were eventually convicted on misdemeanor charges. Cleaver was released the next day because he was unarmed and covering the event for Ramparts.
Meanwhile, relations between the Panthers and the largely white Oakland police force continued to worsen. The party’s literature featured images of heroic black men and women overcoming authority figures, especially the police, who were drawn as swine. One of the party’s chants included the verse:
At a Panther wedding, a group of children performed a variation on that theme: “We want a pork chop, off the pig!”
A few months after the Sacramento protest, Newton converted these words into action. On October 28, 1967, a young police officer named John Frey stopped Newton’s car near the corner of Seventh and Willow streets in West Oakland. Newton and a friend named Gene McKinney had been celebrating the end of Newton’s probation, which followed a conviction for stabbing a man at a party with a steak knife. Realizing he had stopped Newton, Frey called for backup. When officer Herbert Heanes arrived, Frey ordered Newton out of the car and led him toward the patrol cars. The two men scuffled, and Frey received a fatal gunshot wound. Heanes shot Newton in the stomach and was wounded himself before Newton and McKinney fled.
Newton and McKinney approached a passing car and told the driver to take them to a nearby address. According to the motorist, one of them had a gun, and Newton said, “I just shot two dudes.” Newton made it to the home of a fellow Panther, who took him to Kaiser Hospital, where Newton was arrested. A photograph of Newton handcuffed to an emergency room gurney, writhing in agony, went out to the rest of the nation.
With Seale in jail on the Sacramento misdemeanor, Cleaver was no longer an ordinary journalist—if he had ever been one. Instead, he became the acting leader of the Black Panther Party, America’s premier revolutionary organization.
After 1967, Ramparts would continue to roil the establishment, but its glory days were short-lived. Never on solid financial ground after Keating’s funds evaporated, Ramparts filed for bankruptcy in January 1969. Hinckle left to found Scanlan’s, where he helped launch Gonzo journalism by pairing Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman. Ramparts reorganized and resumed publishing in April 1969, but a coup led by Horowitz and Collier led to the departure of Scheer and Stermer later that year. The magazine cut costs and took a more dogmatic editorial line. Circulation declined steadily until 1975, when the magazine closed its doors for good.
Despite its brief life, Ramparts was remarkably influential. By hiring Eldridge Cleaver, covering the Black Panthers, and sponsoring work by its leaders, the magazine played a critical role in the Black Power movement. Ramparts also mobilized opposition to the Vietnam War, not least by moving leaders like Martin Luther King. Finally, Ramparts indirectly influenced the history of the CIA. According to author Tim Weiner, the initial CIA investigation of Ramparts “grew into a much larger effort: prying into the unruly world of the underground press.” After New York Times reporter and Ramparts contributor Seymour Hersh exposed that effort, Congress created the first intelligence oversight committees. The Senate version was especially effective at investigating CIA and FBI malfeasance. It was chaired by Frank Church, Ed Keating’s college friend at Stanford University.
But Ramparts’ deepest influence was on the media itself. By demonstrating that a “radical slick” could attract a large readership, Ramparts overcame resistance from more established outlets and cleared the way for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones (another magazine founded by Ramparts veterans), and other publications that proved to be more durable. It also forced mainstream news organizations to pick up their game. In a recent interview, one former Ramparts staffer summed up the magazine’s legacy this way: “When you look back at it, where else would those articles appear? The Saturday Evening Post?” In the aftermath of Ramparts’ success, CBS launched 60 Minutes, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, and the Washington Post broke the Watergate story. Far from the centers of political power, Ramparts charted new territory in American journalism, and 1967 was its most adventurous year.
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