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Ask the Times: What was the first alternative 'media' in Arkansas? 

click image X-Ray University of Arkansas demonstration
  • Courtesy of the University of Arkansas Special Collections
  • An X-Ray-inspired student demonstration in 1912.

Arkansas Blog commenter radical centrist writes: "What was the first 'alternative media' in Arkansas? The oldest I've heard of was The X-Ray underground newspaper published in Fayetteville around 1910, but were there others before that? Do any copies of The X-Ray still exist?"

Well, it depends on what you mean by "alternative."

Arkansas Times is the oldest surviving "alternative weekly" in the state, first hitting the streets as the Union Station Times on Sept. 5, 1974, with a cover story on churches fleeing downtown for West Little Rock. An even older example of the alt weekly format, though, was Fayetteville's The Grapevine. Started as a free weekly in 1970, the paper survived until the early 1990s. The Grapevine covered local culture, music and events — including some of the first reporting on the near-hypnotic appeal of a young UA law professor named Bill Clinton.

If, however, we're talking about an alternative to the established newspaper, then the first alternative media in the state has to be The Arkansas Advocate, which began publishing in March 1830 as a political counterpoint to the 11-year-old Arkansas Gazette. The Arkansas Advocate was founded by Robert Crittenden, who had been appointed by President James Monroe in 1819 as secretary of the Arkansas Territory. A wheeler-dealer politician and attorney who almost singlehandedly convinced the territorial legislature to move the capital from Arkansas Post to Little Rock (where Crittenden owned quite a bit of land) in 1820, Crittenden created The Arkansas Advocate pretty much because he didn't like the things Gazette publisher William Woodruff had to say about him and his political goals.

In terms of racial alternatives in the media, the first African-American newspaper in the state was The Arkansas Freeman. First published in 1869, the paper was founded by a committee of African Americans on the campus of Philander Smith College. It remained in publication for only one year.

The X-Ray might not have been the first alternative media in the state, but it is at the center of a fascinating bit of early free speech protest and civil disobedience. Published only briefly in 1912, it was a student-produced alternative to the University of Arkansas's official student newspaper. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, The X-Ray "criticized a number of university and local conditions" in a manner that many deemed insulting to professors and UA administrators, angering school officials enough that 36 students involved in the writing, printing and circulation of the paper were summarily expelled from the university in February 1912. Only after widespread class attendance boycotts, mass protests involving over 700 students, and a deal brokered by the governor's office were the expelled students allowed to return to class. On the upside, the X-Ray expulsions and protests (along with another crisis over a group expulsion in 1919) led directly to the creation of the student government system at UA.

According to the interim head of special collections, Timothy Nutt, the special collections wing of the University of Arkansas library has two physical copies of The X-Ray among its collection, which are available to view on microfilm, as well as a student-created scrapbook that features pages from The X-Ray and newspaper clippings about the ensuing protests.

A previous version of this article said that the oldest African-American newspaper we could find in the historical record was The Helena Golden Epoch, first published in 1881. Thanks to Encyclopedia of Arkansas editor Guy Lancaster for correcting us.
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