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Charlie Thomas

I was born and raised in Harlan County, Kentucky, a coal mining area. I was a SNCC volunteer in Mississippi in 1965-66 and was in federal prison from 1967 to 1969 for refusing induction. I learned to print at the Free Press and, except for five years as a union organizer, have made a living working in print shops. I am married and live in Asheville, NC, about 100 miles from where I grew up. Similar terrain, no coal.


It is the printing press that makes the pen mightier than the sword. Having the right printed material at the right time can make the difference between success and failure, as demonstrated by Jo Ann Robinson and the Women's Political Council when they began the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.


Here's the text:


Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing.


This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue.


The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman's case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday.


Please stay off all buses Monday


Because of the extreme danger, the flyer was not signed. The women stayed up all night mimeographing 50,000 of these leaflets at Alabama State College where Robinson taught. They used a network of high school students, political allies, and friends to distribute the flyers to every Black school. The kids took them home to their parents and all of Black Montgomery found out about the boycott at the same time.


The flyer took the case for the boycott directly to the Black residents of Montgomery. Reluctant leaders were presented with a fait accompli. The Monday boycott was so successful that it was extended for what would turn out to be twelve months and fifteen days, ending in a court decision vindicating the Black citizens of Montgomery and kick-starting the Civil Rights  Movement.

Nick Thorkelson captured the mission of the Free Press precisely in this excellent cover he did for the 1979 catalogue. A woman, deep underground, runs a press which sets off an explosion that undermines the foundations of the castle.

Is that Jo Anne Robinson printing the flyer that kicked off the modern Civil Rights Movement?


Or is that Ida B. Wells exposing how lynching was a public spectacle used to terrorize and control African Americans? Her paper was burned by a mob, but she kept writing and publishing.


Or is that Hester Butterfield printing Meridith Tax's ground-breaking Woman and Her Mind at the Free Press in 1970?


Hester Butterfield taught me to print. She had already helped me enormously. In order to get parole from prison, I needed a place to live and a job, and I had neither. Hester, whose husband Jim Wessner was in prison with me, arranged for me to stay with her parents, Lyman and Elizabeth Butterfield, in Cambridge. They were wonderful people who were very kind to me. After a few weeks I moved in with a houseful of other draft resisters: John Phillips, Charlie Muse, and David Stoppleman.


Hester also found me a job at a shoe factory in Brockton, so each day I rode the Red Line from one end to the other, learning Boston one stop at a time. I had never lived in the north before, and each day brought new revelations, like the time I encountered an old lady on the street outside the Butterfield's house and said "Good morning" to her. She looked stricken and I learned that one does not speak to people in the north.


And now Hester was teaching me to print using the "hands in your pocket" technique. After one had learned the press controls, the teacher kept her hands in her pockets while the learner performed the operations, getting the muscle memory necessary for real learning. In turn, I taught a number of others to print.


While I was there, every staff member learned all the steps in printing, from copy preparation, to photography, to printing and binding. Here are the things we all learned while I was there:

  • Making a work order for a print job

  • Camera work, making line negatives and half tones

  • Headline making

  • Stripping negatives, including sheet imposition and opaquing

  • Plate burning

  • Printing

  • Folding

  • Collating

  • Stitching

  • Cutting

  • Filling orders


All of our equipment was old and cantankerous. The presses and the folder required constant adjustment, but other staff members and Lithographer 3 & 2 explained how to make adjustments and keep them running.


The Free Press was organized as a collective. Each staff member had a vote on all policies and on what we published. A simple majority was required for any decision, and once a decision was made, we all carried it out, a form of democratic centralism. The shop was worker-owned and for some of us, the first time we could decide anything on our job.


We were all movement people, and I think most of us were communists or socialists of one stripe or another. We recognized that the movement was far bigger than any one organization and the purpose of the shop was to serve the whole movement. We printed for pacifists and the Black Panther Party, all sides of the SDS split, the National Organization for Women and lesbian separatists–anyone who was organizing around issues of peace and equality.


As I recall, we paid ourselves $30 per week, just enough to live in a cheap apartment with two or three roommates. The low pay is what enabled us to keep prices low for the movement printing and the pamphlets we published.


Don McKelvey had managed the national SDS office and so was an invaluable asset to the Free Press. Don opened the mail, made sure the orders were filled, handled the books, ordered paper and ink, and paid us every week. While Don did his share of printing, he made sure the rent was paid first.


I was agog at the pamphlet program. Isaac Asimov! He was best know for his science fiction (The Foundation trilogy, etc.) but I knew him from his science writing. And now here he was with Uncertain, Coy, and Hard to Please, dismantling the notions of women's inferiority and looking ahead to the "society of sexual equality that is coming." You could get a copy for ten cents, or ten for a dollar and tell all your friends!


The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike, The Politics of Housework, Woman and Her Mind. In the phrase of the day, they blew my mind. I learned who Eqbal Ahmad and Noam Chomsky were, read Monthly Review, and printed late into the night.


Sometimes Don typed up the addresses at the end of the day so when I did the second shift at night I would fill them all. He would attach the address label to the order and put it on the order desk.


There were a lot of orders every day, usually about 15 or 20. They varied from a person wanting one of each pamphlet in a section or two, to one copy of almost everything. A common order was one of each in the Women’s section.


Bulk orders of Pat Mainardi's “The Politics of Housework”, Laurel Limpus's Liberation of Women, or Dana Densmore's Sex Roles and Female Oppression were common.


So if our sales were an indication, 200 women somewhere in the US were reading “The Politics of Housework”, every week, week in and week out. And passing them on. Over time, that meant that tens of thousands of women were reading “Housework” and helping make a change. Women’s groups were everywhere in those years, and a lot of them read and discussed our pamphlets.


When we could find a way to lower prices, we did. We were always aware that every price cut meant that people could order more copies, spreading the ideas of the movement to more corners of the country.


In printing, as in other manufacturing, more copies means less cost per copy. Most of our pamphlets sold modestly, so printing them ourselves on offset paper, usually in runs of 1000 copies was efficient. But with the women's movement growing rapidly in the late sixties and early seventies, we would run out of 1000 copies of some titles quickly.


Print more, obviously. But there was little increased efficiency in just printing more copies since our labor was almost free. The solution was to have the longer, more popular pamphlets printed on newsprint, outside the shop. I have in my hand a copy of Laurel Limpus on newsprint, priced at five cents. Twenty copies for a dollar!


We had Limpus and Densmore and a couple of other printed in lots of 5000 or 10,000. 


We published Women and Their Bodies in December of 1970.  The Free Press was a break-even operation, so when the Boston Women's Health Collective came to us to publish it, we didn't have the money to do it.   The Collective raised $5,000 to pay for the first printing.


Hester Butterfield and Marilyn Slotkin did the layout of the typed manuscript, adding photos from everywhere, including one on page 34 of a beatific Claudette Piper tossing stolen draft files into the air at an anti-war rally. Women were everywhere, doing everything, including breaking into draft boards.


That first and only printed edition of Women and Their Bodies was 5,000 copies priced at 75¢.


The Health Collective changed the name to Our Bodies, Ourselves and we published it in April of 1971, priced at 45¢ in an edition of 15,000 copies. The price fluctuated for a time, going to 35¢ at one point, and 25¢ at another. We finally settled on 30¢ as the break-even price.


Our experience outsourcing some of the women's liberation pamphlets is what enabled us to publish OBOS. We knew that long runs on newsprint were so cheap that we could get Our Bodies, Ourselves out to a wide audience, and we did.


A bug, in printing, is a small mark used by union printers showing the number of the local union. We always used a union printer, and my newsprint copy of OBOS has a tiny bug on the first inside page saying LPIU, Local 40, Boston. That's the Lithographers and Photoengravers International Union, now part of the Teamsters.


Our shop had its own bug saying "Movement Labor, New England Free Press" and after the move to Union Square, the staff joined the Industrial Workers of the World and became IWW Local 450.


Don McKelvey typeset that first edition of OBOS in a print shop in our building owned by Ray and Maria Coleman. Don was a very fast and accurate typist, a necessity when using the Friden typesetter, because you were typing "blind". There was no display and the only output was a punched paper tape. Then the tape was fed into another keyboard that typeset the text.


When we published OBOS, we sold a lot of single copies. Then the bulk orders started. Ten or twenty copies at a time, and often 100 or more. Some clinics were ordering 100 copies every few weeks. By 1972 we were selling over 3000 per week. That's a bestseller by any measure. At the time we had to fill the orders and then take them to the post office, so every day somebody had to load up her car and make that trip. Hello Susanna Cobb!


We had the printer pack them 100 to a carton to make filling bulk orders easier.


Sales of the other women’s pamphlets increased too. And all the while we were steadily churning out the rest of the list as well.

As central to our work as the pamphlet program was, most of our work at the press was in printing for the Boston area movement.

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