Gaylord Nelson, the ambitious junior senator from Wisconsin, grew accustomed to disappointment in the 1960s. In his first Senate speech, supporting a bill banning phosphates in detergents, he insisted that "we need this...just as desperately as we need the defense against atomic missiles." That did not stop his fellow legislators from voting down the bill, just as similar pleas could not win him a single co-sponsor for his 1966 bill banning DDT. While he was able to lure President Kennedy to take a "conservation tour" of Wisconsin and the West in 1963, he watched helplessly as the President, the press, and audiences preferred to debate taxes and Cold War politics.
To wake up Washington, he would need a new plan.
The idea came to him in August of 1969 after surveying the oil spill in Santa Barbara. For the past few years, college students had been staging teach-ins to educate their campuses about the war in Vietnam. What if, Nelson wondered, students used the same forum to raise environmental awareness, and what if they coordinate their events to fall on the same day, grabbing headlines and sending a strong environmental message to the Capitol? He proposed the idea in front of a small, fledgling conservation group in Seattle on September 20. A short wire story broadcast the idea.
Seven months later Nelson's idea resulted in the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Millions of Americans observed Earth Day in April 1970, whether in groups of tens of thousands in New York or Philadelphia or with events big and small at thousands of colleges and schools across the country. While Nelson with his staff worked tirelessly to promote the day and coordinate select events, he would grow fond of saying Earth Day "organized itself." Nelson encouraged all Americans to celebrate the day "in any way they want."
For the first time, the Earth Day stage gathered together the diverse constituents of the modern environmental movement: youthful idealists, liberal Democrats, middle-class women, scientists, professionals, and representatives of conservation groups, labor unions, and churches.
Addressing the Earth Day 1970 audience in Denver, Nelson proclaimed, "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."
Click here to watch videos of Gaylord Nelson speaking about the environment and Earth Day.