The first Earth Day
U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin announced his idea for a nationwide teach-in day on the environment in a speech to a fledgling conservation group in Seattle on 20 September 1969, and then again six days later in Atlantic City to a meeting of the United Auto Workers. Senator Nelson hoped that a grassroots outcry about environmental issues might prove to Washington, D.C. just how distressed Americans were in every constituency. Senator Nelson invited Republican Representative Paul N “Pete” McCloskey to serve as his co-chair and they incorporated a new non-profit organization, environmental Teach-In, Inc., to stimulate participation across the country. Both continued to give speeches plugging the event.
On September 29, 1969, in a front-page New York Times article, Gladwin Hill wrote:
“Rising concern about the “environmental crisis” is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned for next spring, when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned…”
Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, read the NYT article and traveled to Washington to get involved. He had been student body president and a campus activist at Stanford University in McCloskey’s district and where Teach-In board member Paul Ehrlich was a professor. He thought he might be asked to organize Boston. Instead, Nelson eventually asked Hayes to drop out of Harvard, assemble a staff, and direct the effort to organize the United States. Hayes would become one of the leading environmental advocates in the United States.
Media coverage of the first Earth Day included a 1-hour special report on CBS News called “Earth Day: A Question of Survival,” with correspondents reporting from a dozen major cities across the country, and narrated by Walter Cronkite (whose backdrop was the Earth Week of Philadelphia’s logo). The largest segment of the special report (1/3 of the hour-long program) focused on Earth Week in Philadelphia.