The First Earth Day: Recalling Wisconsin Senator and Founder Gaylord Nelson

Published on Dundalk Patch, by Ron Cassie, April 22, 2011.

Founded in 1970 as an environmental teach-in by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, Earth Day rallies helped lead to passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Act … //

… At a fall conference in Seattle in 1969, Nelson, who passed away in 2005, announced that the following spring there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment, inviting everyone’s participation. In his book, Nelson says that the April 22 date was chosen because it was before between mid-term and final exams on college campuses, and also before summer recess for grade schools and high schools. 

“I believed the support of these groups would be critical to any successful demonstration on behalf of the environment,” Nelson explained. “That turned out to be a pretty good guess.”

Two-thousand colleges and universities, 10,000 grade schools and high schools, and another 2,000 community groups joined in, organizing events.

The cause and the date caught the attention of the John Birch Society, which claimed the event was a poor attempt to conceal what the rallies really were – a Communist plot to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday.

As Nelson began the initial planning of Earth Day, environmental lawyer Larry Rockefeller inquired about the effort and made the first Earth Day contribution, a $1,000 check he left with a Nelson staffer. Two friends of Nelson’s from the labor movement, United Auto Workers president, Walter Reuther, and American Federation of Labor president George Meany, each added $2,000 donations.

Speaking fees eventually raised $18,000. Sydney Howe of the Conservation Foundation contributed another $20,000 as individual contributions arrived from people supportive of the cause.

“We ran the whole show with just $185,000,” Nelson recalled.

Republican Representative Paul N. McCloskey  of California was named honorary co-chair with Nelson. Denis Hayes, a 24-year-old Stanford graduate, served as national coordinator.

“We feel that the most important achievement of April 22already has happened,” Stephen Cotton, another of the principal organizers, told the New York Times the day before the first Earth Day. “That is the organization of groups and the establishment of a solid base in communities. Most of them say they’re going beyond the 22nd, and we’re going to working with them.”

Cotton proved prophetic. Forty-one years later, Earth Day, has far beyond whatever he, Gaylord Nelson and the other organizers could ever have imagined. (full text).

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