IT may be the simplest exercise of any right guaranteed a citizen by the United States Constitution: To stand on a street corner with a stack of handbills and thrust one after another at passers-by. It's free speech in hand-to-hand transaction, the poor man's version of the slick poster. With a few cryptic words and images a leaflet can denounce the government, promise the moon, sell the kitchen sink, or announce a protest march for or against astrology in the White House.
This honorable method of communication dates back to England in 1477, when the first known handbill, a public advertisement, was circulated and posted. The objective then and now has never changed: emotional or rational persuasion.
By virtue of amateur and professional historians who have an eye on documenting history, leaflets and other paper ephemera are saved by individuals and institutions. The 8-by-11 leaflets shown on these pages were rescued by this reporter from thousands circulating during the turbulent 1960s and '70s in the US - a time that is being recalled this year on the 20th anniversary of the explosive summer of '68.
Vietnam became a rallying cry for this generation of protests. The civil rights movement challenged society's status quo. And individuals, such as citizen Leonard Brody (upper-left handbill), burned draft cards and refused to go to war.
``To a certain degree the leaflets and other materials give a feeling for the issues and passion of the day,'' says Sarah Cooper, director of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, which has an extensive collection of paper documents from social-action movements beginning in the 1930s.
The Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison has more than 500 collections from social-action movements. Diaries, posters, leaflets, mass mailings, and clippings from such groups as the Vietnam Moratorium Committee, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Students for a Democratic Society, and guerrilla theater in San Francisco are available for research.
At the University of California in Berkeley, where the Free Speech movement in 1964 triggered campus revolts throughout the country, the Bancroft Library has an exhaustive collection of material from that era. ``We have tens of thousands of fliers, handouts, small newspapers, and political material from the right and left,'' says staff member Peter Hanff.
``People at Berkeley knew the movement was important,'' says Sarah Cooper, who organized the Bancroft collection, ``and they collected everything that was available on campus and from individuals.''
Because these memorabilia are so new in a historical context, they're not hot collectibles - yet. ``I'd be surprised if you could get much over $40 for an important handbill,'' says Louis Bixenman of Poster America, a dealer in New York City.
``The value is not placed so much on single handbills,'' says John Durham of Bolerium Books in San Francisco, ``but on the extent of a collection and its condition. There is a modest interest in materials from the '60s, but as time goes by their value will increase.''