ART KUNKIN RECOGNIZED FOR LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENTBy David Haldane, Contributing Writer to the Los Angeles Free Press
Art Kunkin, the founding publisher of the iconic Los Angeles Free Press which, in its heyday, was the most widely read underground newspaper in America and a major mouthpiece for the counterculture of that era, has been given a Lifetime Achievement Award for his “tireless efforts to advance equality, peace and social justice.”
A spokesman of the Inland Empire Veterans for Peace, which bestowed the award at its annual Memorial Day Awards Luncheon held this year at Cimarron Golf Resort in Cathedral City, characterized Kunkin as having been “ahead of his time” in efforts to achieve tolerance and justice for those who had suffered its absence, including members of the LGBT community.
The chapter, chaired by Tom Swann in Rancho Mirage, plants peace poles, participates in local ceremonies and parades and has the ears of many local politicians.
Its sentiments regarding Art Kunkin, in fact, were echoed by the California State Assembly which simultaneously issued a resolution honoring the one-time machinist and former member of the Socialist Workers Party.
Kunkin, now 88, started the Free Press on a shoestring in 1964. It quickly became a major nerve center of the burgeoning social movements of its time, eventually reaching a weekly circulation of 100,000, employing 150 people and operating three bookstores.
Many early staff members went on to significant careers as journalists, prose writers, poets and entertainment critics, including Paul Schrader, Gene Youngblood, Harvey Perr, Norman Hartweg and Deena Metzger. The paper also published the work of such established writers as Harlan Ellison, Anais Nin, Lawrence Lipton, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Paul Krassner, Ed Sanders, Timothy Leary and William Burroughs.
As one of the earliest and most influential alternative newspapers in America, the Los Angeles Free Press – said to have inspired more than 600 imitators – has been preserved in more than sixty university, rare book and historical society collections nationwide. Many of the social movements and issues it supported and gave voice to, in fact, have survived or re-emerged as relevant today, including Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, income inequality, homelessness, women’s rights and environmental concerns.
Today the Free Press itself survives in digital form at LAFreePress.com, published by Steven M. Finger. He was a fan of the original paper when he first met Kunkin nearly forty years ago. At just 21 he had already been the Coordinator of one of V.I.S.T.A.’s largest student-volunteer programs, and was a regular at political protests. In 2006 he and Art, still friends, decided to re-incarnate the old weekly in the belief that the movements of the 1960s had not yet come to fruition.
The publishing strategy that evolved was to post the Free Press’ original 1960s articles in order to push readers to what they considered ‘the tipping point’; the idea that fulfillment of the ‘60s promises was long overdue and right in step with the politics of today. Those original articles are now found under a tab called Throwback Thursday. Another section, called A Unique Perspective, offers contemporary commentary under the bylines of writers credited as LA Free Press Contributing Writers.
Additionally, there are sections called Special Features and The Evolution of the American Political Revolution comprised of constantly-updated news of the on-going election.
The paper’s Archive Research Service offers readers an article of their choice for free, a service utilized over the past several years by film and TV producers, authors and many others searching for 1960s info. Those inquiries go directly to stevenmfinger@LAFreePress.com.
At the Veterans for Peace awards ceremony held over the holiday weekend, a beaming Kunkin outlined the paper’s history, discussed his own short military career and talked about his latest passion: discovering the secret of immortality.
“I feel it’s helping me live forever,” he said of the Lifetime Achievement Award. “It means I have lots of friends.”
[Ed.’s Note: Haldane is the author of Nazis & Nudists, an award-winning memoir of love, journalism and the counterculture described by one reviewer as “unflinching, wildly improbable and pretty scary in spots.”]