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Gaylord Nelson speaking on Earth Day April 22, 1970 in Denver, Colorado

Gaylord Nelson speaks to an Earth Day crowd in Denver, Colorado, on April 22, 1970. You can view the speech notes by Nelson on this page.

 

Gaylord Nelson's speeches on Earth Day emphasized that the environment must also include poverty, hunger, and urban blight.   Nelson said, "Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures."

Historian Adam Rome calls Earth Day the “most famous unknown event in modern American history.” Its grassroots nature, spurred by Gaylord Nelson’s wish for Americans to observe it “in any way they want,” makes it impossible to ever fully capture the first Earth Day's scale and variety. Millions of Americans participated in thousands of communities around the country.

The size of events ranged from small high-school assemblies to the hundred-thousand participants who created a “human jam” on New York’s Fifth Avenue and flocked to the open-air carnival in the city’s Union Square. Tens of thousands congregated in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. Colleges across the nation held teach-ins, such as Pittsburgh or Ann Arbor, turning Earth Day into a several-day event.

Each Earth Day event nationwide was some combination of festival, political and academic discussions, outlandish theatrics, and coalition building. The common act on April 22 was the speech. Earth Day presented the opportunity to speak at length about local and national environmental problems, and audiences discovered the will and expertise available in their communities to face the challenges ahead.  

Madison’s Earth Day was typical of others in big university towns. Observers assembled at 4:45 am for an “Earth Service” at Picnic Point to greet the sunrise with a Sanskrit invocation and read together from Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Thoreau, and the Bible. The city and university devoted the whole week to events, including an environmental art show, a film festival, field trips, and dozens of workshops on a array of topics, such as “Food Additives and Cancer,” “Pollution Induced Climate Change,” and “Dane County Land Use Problems.” Meanwhile, Girl Scouts fanned out across the city to distribute 40,000 pamphlets prepared by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students advocating “Household Action” everyone could take to save the planet.

Walter Cronkite began the evening’s CBS News special report on April 22, 1970, by describing Earth Day activists as “predominantly young, predominantly white.” But Gaylord Nelson's speech given in Denver that same day told a different story--an environment that also included poverty, hunger, and blight. He did not want the prominence of college students to overshadow the diversity of Earth Day activists and activism. While white, middle-class activists often spoke of national crises, collective guilt, and solutions involving changes in individual behavior, people of color and working-class participants tended to target local grievances that resulted from systemic inequality. For example, Albuquerque’s United Mexican American Students marched on a sewage plant stinking up a Latino neighborhood. A working-class mother in southwest Philadelphia arranged a bus tour to bring people to see the refineries that spew smoke down into her community. And the St. Louis group Black Survival, formed when civil rights activists sought the help of scientists to combat urban environmental hazards, staged scenes depicting the ravages of lead poisoning, smog-induced asthma, and streets overlooked by the city’s sanitation department.

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View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

go to document'See the Document Index for hundreds of additional documents, images, and artifacts about Nelson and Earth Day

go to document'Face the Nation' transcript from 19 April 1970

go to imageVideo of Nelson's Earth Day 1970 speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (in 3 parts)

go to documentNationwide campus plans for Earth Day

go to imageThe ecology logo

go to documentNelson's fiery defense of Earth Week instead of media hype for major anniversaries

get pdfLink to NY Times online PDF news story of the first Earth Day