A proposal reprinted across the country
The November 1969 issue of the Gaylord Nelson Newsletter from his Senate office.
After his speech in Seattle in September, the national media quickly spread word of Nelson’s teach-in idea and Americans got to work organizing their own events. In this newsletter Nelson writes, “My office has been receiving mail from students and people from all parts of the nation wanting to know how to become involved and how to plan a teach-in.” Earth Day belonged to the grassroots from the start.
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On September 9, 1969, Gaylord Nelson spoke a few words to a small crowd in Seattle about his idea for a day of national teach-ins on the environment. Within a few months the Earth Day idea had become a nationwide grassroots event supported by millions of people. How did this happen so quickly?
The idea's momentum began with newspapers. The Associated Press and United Press picked up the story in September 1969 and newspapers across the country reprinted Nelson’s proposal. “Nelson Leads Movement,” the headline in the Manitowoc Herald Times proclaimed. Readers learned of a day when “college scientists, public leaders, students, and faculty to discuss threats to the ecology of the world.” Nelson’s relayed his wish to see programs scheduled at all the nation’s universities.
As wire stories popped up in the next few weeks, the national press took notice. A small notice in Time on October 10 notified millions of Americans about the teach-in. “Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson is convinced that the hottest growth stick in U.S. protest is conservation,” the article titled “American the Befouled” began. “In fact, he has been toiling to make the nation’s campuses erupt next spring—in a giant, peaceful teach-in about environmental evils.” Many read these words and immediately got to work planning their own events.
On November 11, 1969, Nelson and his staff announced that April 22, 1970—a date chosen to fit best in college schedules between spring break and final exams—would be the day of what they named the “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment.” Another flurry of media attention followed. His November Senate newsletter (at right) announced the proposal to his Wisconsin constituents. A New York Times article featured a photograph of University of Minnesota students conducting a ceremonial burial of an internal combustion engine and included the prediction that Nelson’s teach-in “could be a bigger and more meaningful even than the antiwar demonstrations.”
Press coverage swelled throughout the winter and into the spring of 1970. Several newspapers and magazines hired reporters to cover the new environmental beat. Life, Newsweek, Time, Fortune, Esquire and other major periodicals published special environmental editions. Nelson’s teach-in proposal simultaneously gained grassroots support and national publicity from this widespread media attention.
View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:
Read the draft Earth Day proposal with by Fred Dutton and story of how Nelson used it selectively
Congressional Record of 8 October 1969 with Nelson's proposal for a national day for the environment, and reprints of news articles
Nelson addresses Congress on January 19, 1970 with a proposal for a constitutional amendment for environmental rights and an aggressive environmental political agenda
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