Informed Archives: The Environmental Action Coalition and the Birth of Earth Day

By Meredith Mann, Specialist II
April 20, 2017
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

In January 2017, thousands gathered on Fifth Avenue and the surrounding area for the Women’s March. But this wasn’t the first time that this street was the home for a massive demonstration: almost fifty years ago, it was a primary thoroughfare for the first Earth Day celebration.

Environmental Action Coalition poster for inaugural Earth Day.

Environmental Action Coalition records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Earth Day began as the brainchild of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who tied the teach-in concept used by contemporary Vietnam War protesters to the environmentalist movement. After proposing the idea of a nationwide environmental teach-in in September 1969, Nelson formed the nonprofit Environmental Action, Inc. to act as a planning group for the big event, set for April 22, 1970. He hired law student Denis Hayes to organize Earth Day on the national level. In turn, local groups handled the logistics for regional events. One such group was the Environmental Action Coalition of New York, formed to coordinate New York City’s Earth Day events and maintained afterward as a locus for environmental awareness and activism. The New York Public Library holds the records of the Environmental Action Coalition, as well as the papers of its first president Harry R. Marshall, in its Manuscripts and Archives Division. These archival collections include press releases, news clippings, administrative files, posters, and other ephemera, which offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workings of this special interest group and the inaugural Earth Day celebration.

Both the planning and response to Earth Day reflected the push-and-pull between moderate and more radical interests of the time.  While Senator Nelson was inspired by Vietnam protest tactics, he was quick to distinguish Earth Day as an educational, non-partisan, and non-radical occasion in order to capture a broad base of support. However, the core of the environmental movement at that time was strongly connected to other liberal causes.  These individuals, including Denis Hayes, were heavily involved with Earth Day’s execution and were interested in a more politicized agenda. Thus, while Environmental Action, Inc. was a registered nonprofit prohibited from partisan action, Hayes quickly created the Environmental Action Foundation to handle such activities. After April, Environmental Action, Inc. dropped its tax-free educational status so that it, too, could engage in lobbying and similar pursuits.

Environmental Action Coalition flyer and newsletter for inaugural Earth Day.

Environmental Action Coalition records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Even the date selected for Earth Day became politicized. Some conservatives seized on the fact that April 22 was the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, arguing that this revealed an underlying current of communist influence. One Georgia comptroller spent $1,600 of taxpayer money sending telegrams to various government officials alerting them to this connection. (Once this use of funds was discovered, he paid for the telegrams himself.) Nevertheless, Senator Nelson received his strong showing of support, with nationwide participation estimated at as many as 20 million people.

The festivities for Earth Day in New York City took shape around two primary locations: Fifth Avenue and Union Square.  Some balked at these choices, seeing the natural beauty of Central Park as a more appropriate base. However, the EAC defended its decision, noting that “Earth Day is a day of action, education, and involvement — a day when people go into the streets — the teeming streets, if you will — and there have brought forcibly to their attention the filth of the gutters, the stench of the air, the screech of auto horns, the grime of the subways, the taste of contaminated food, and the roar of construction.” That being said, the EAC took strides to make both areas pleasant for Earth Day participants. A crew gathered in Union Square the morning of the event to clean, and arrangements were made to dispose of any resultant litter.  More logistically impressive was the closing of streets to car traffic: the mayor’s office closed Fifth Avenue from 59th Street to 14th Street from 12 to 2 p.m., and 14th Street was closed from 7th Avenue to 2nd Avenue from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. During this period, The New York Times noted that carbon monoxide levels at Union Square dropped from 13 parts per million to 2.

Thanks to the street closures, Union Square was set up with close to 100 booths educating visitors on various environmental causes, such as pollution, food additives, waste disposal, and population growth, as well as the two city-specific concerns of lead paint detection and pest control. The National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, American Cancer Society, Planned Parenthood, United Farm Workers Union, and American Littoral Society were among the exhibitors.  Speakers included folk singer Pete Seegar — Earth Day’s honorary chairman for New York City — Margaret Mead, Ed Koch, Leonard Bernstein, and the cast of Hair. The focal point was a giant inflatable bubble constructed of polyethylene and filled with clean air. Visitors could walk through to experience a respite from air pollution — though as news accounts pointed out, the air was soon compromised when participants took the opportunity to engage in some recreational drug use. The Times estimated that about 100,000 people visited the festivities in Union Square, with around 20,000 present at any one time.

Union Square crowds (left) and clean air bubble (right).

Environmental Action Coalition records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Moving uptown, for two hours Fifth Avenue became a pedestrian mall.  Storefronts set out tiny cafes and picnicking areas, Girl Scouts handed out flowers, the New York Horticultural Society donated a tree to process down the closed street, and Rockefeller Center hosted a children’s art show. The New York Public Library’s 42nd Street location hosted its own impressive line-up of speakers on its front steps: Roger Caras, Marya Mannes, Alfred Kazin, Mayor John Lindsay, and Kurt Vonnegut all made remarks. The musical group Voices of East Harlem was drawn by horses on a flower-bedecked flat-bed truck down the avenue before performing outside the Library. Vonnegut’s commentary bleakly cut the prevailing optimism of the day: “Here we are again, the peaceful demonstrators, mostly young and mostly white.  Good luck to us, for I don’t know what sporting event the president [Nixon] may be watching at the moment. He should help us make a fit place for human beings to live.  Will he do it?  No.  So the war will go on.  Meanwhile, we go up and down Fifth Avenue picking up trash.”

Schedule of Earth Day events at The New York Public Library.

Environmental Action Coalition records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Vonnegut’s ambivalence was shared by other observers, who criticized the superficial participation of corporations — most notably ConEd, who donated the use of an electric bus for event transportation — questioned the longevity of such public interest in environmental causes, and generally thought that the actions advocated at Earth Day did not go far enough toward enacting the social and regulatory changes that would set the planet on a sustainable course. An op-ed in the Long Island Press called Earth Day a “flop” and “muddled carnival”; another critic, reminiscent of Vonnegut, labelled it a “nice, good middle-class issue” that distracted from less palatable ones like the Vietnam War. But the festivities did not stop at words and flyers: Earth Day resolutions were passed in forty-two statehouses. New York’s Governor Rockefeller signed an anti-pollution bill, and New Jersey’s Governor Cahill approved a state Environmental Protection Agency.  Moreover, the popularity of Earth Day made it clear that environmental issues had massive grassroots support.  Congress recessed for the day, so that representatives could make various local appearances with their constituents.  The following day, Congress introduced legislation to make it an annual holiday. Organizer Denis Hayes embodied the conflicted reaction to Earth Day, but publicly framed it in optimistic terms: “It will be a difficult fight. Earth Day is the beginning.”

Further Reading

To support research of environmental themes, the Manuscripts and Archives Division holds the National Audubon Society records and Breathe Again records, as well as the papers of Lettie Gay Carson and Jim Mason.  For published sources, including those informing this blog post, consider reading the following:

About the Informed Archives Series

Archival collections and rare printed works at The New York Public Library preserve unique evidence of human activity and achievement that form a basis for the study of political, social, economic, and cultural history.  These materials have special importance not only to scholars, but also to citizens interested in historic parallels with current events. The Informed Archives blog series aims to inspire community engagement by highlighting particular collections, contextualizing their creation, and promoting their contents.   Through illustrating the vitality of our shared documentary record, we hope to encourage conversation and new readership.