April 22, 1970
First Earth Day is celebrated
The first Earth Day was held in communities all across the country. Earth Day was the creation of Senator Gaylord Nelson. As he describes it, a number of senators were concerned about the state of the country’s environment in the early 1960s. In a move intended to bring national visibility to the issue of environmental deterioration, the Senators persuaded President Kennedy to take on a nationwide conservation tour, “spelling out in dramatic language the serious and deteriorating condition of our environment.” The tour was a failure. Senators Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Joe Clark, and Nelson himself accompanied Kennedy on the first leg of his trip to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Though the tour failed to rouse interest of any significant level in the environment as a political issue, Nelson credits the mission with being the seed from which Earth Day would eventually flower. The idea for a grassroots effort gestated in Nelson’s head until July of 1969, when, according to Nelson, the anti-war teach-ins of the Vietnam era inspired him to conceive of a nationwide environmental “teach-in.” Nelson returned to Washington and began to raise funds for the event. In addition, he and his staff sent letters to 50 governors, and to the mayors of all major cities requesting them to make Earth Day proclamations. In a speech in Seattle in September of 1969, Nelson formally announced that a nationwide environmental teach-in would take place in the spring of the coming year. All of the major wire services ran the story, and the response was dramatic. From that point on, says Nelson, Earth Day was the product of the populace. By December, the response of inquiries had so overwhelmed Nelson’s Senate office that an Earth Day Clearing House was set up in Washington to plan for the event. In the end, an estimated 20 million people participated in Earth Day events of some kind. Ten thousand grade schools and high schools, 2,000 thousand colleges, and 1,000 thousand communities across the country held official events. Earth Day is responsible for establishing the efficacy of grassroots environmental advocacy. A by-product of Earth Day that directly effected the automobile industry was the public’s heightened awareness of the environmental dangers of gasoline exhaust emissions.