Earth Day: Celebrating the planet for 50 years

By Amelia Blades Steward

First Lady Pat Nixon and her husband President Richard Nixon plant a tree in honor of the first Earth Day.

“Act or die.”

This was the message of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, according to CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who reported on what was the planet’s largest civic event. Earth Day was started as a populist response to growing environmental concerns of the day, specifically air and water pollution. The early Earth Day organizers helped to found what today is a growing movement to combat climate change.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this April, it is worth a look back on the origins of this day and its impact on environmental laws in the U.S., as well as a local connection and how the anniversary will be remembered at one event on the Mid-Shore.

History of Earth Day

The founder of Earth Day was Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, who wanted to harness the energy of the anti-war protest movement to put environmental concerns at the top of public consciousness. April 22 was chosen for the date. As it fell between spring break and final exams, it was thought to be the best date to engage the nation’s college and school-aged students. The event involved 2,000 colleges and 2,000 communities. An estimated 20 million people protested a myriad of things: oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife.

Perhaps biologist Barry Commoner stated it best during Cronkite’s broadcast: “This planet is threatened with destruction and we who live in it with death. We are in a crisis for survival.”

According to the Earth Day Network (, “In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity.

Until this point, mainstream America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health.”

Coast-to-coast rallies that first year had an impact, and successfully raised awareness about the state of our planet. Earth Day has been credited with launching landmark environmental laws in the U.S. — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, and even the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many states and counties followed suit.

As 1990 approached, a group of environmental leaders approached Denis Hayes, the first Earth Day’s national coordinator, to organize another major campaign for the planet and to go global with the message. The event mobilized 200 million people in 141 countries and lifted environmental issues such as recycling onto the world stage. In 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day the historic Paris Agreement for Climate Change was signed.

As we approach Earth Day 2020, the theme has changed to climate action. Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers comments, “We find ourselves today in a world facing global threats that demand a unified global response. For Earth Day 2020, we will build a new generation of environmental activists, engaging millions of people worldwide.”

Above: Women on a street in Washington, D.C. are unwittingly positioned next to a woman in a gas mask during the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Photo from WASHINGTONIANA/D.C. Public Library, Special Collections

A vintage poster from 1970 and the one of the 2020

posters in circulation.

Local environmental efforts

Local arts advocate Busy Graham, who lives in Royal Oak and is the Founder & Executive Director of Carpe Diem Arts, helped produce a major event, “Song of the Earth: 40th Anniversary of Earth Day Celebration,” at the Music Center at Strathmore in April 2010.

“We had 125 singers ages 10 to 75, and another 25 musicians and dancers, performing for an audience of 900 people,” she said.

“The evening included the world premiere of Malcolm Dalglish’s song setting of Wendell Berry’s poem ‘Violets.’”

Graham’s personal connection to Earth Day goes back to her childhood. Her father, Richard A. Graham, re-imagined his life at age 40 by leaving a successful career as a mechanical engineer and going into public service. He was friends with Senator Nelson, who paved the way for Graham’s family to move from Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. Dick Graham would join the Peace Corps staff soon after the agency was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.

Sargent Shriver was the first director, and Bill Moyers was the first associate director of public affairs.

She remembers, “After two years on staff as Shriver’s deputy, my Dad was asked to be the Peace Corps country director in Tunisia from 1963 to 1965. Two great years for our family. I remain eternally grateful to Senator Gaylord Nelson for opening the door to a remarkable career for my father and a truly enriching experience for our family.”

In 1965, Dick Graham was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as one of the first Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioners, focusing on Latino and women’s rights. As EEOC commissioner, he was approached by Betty Friedan for help in forming a national organization to promote women’s rights. He suggested she call it the National Organization of Women and was named the first Vice President — an unlikely position for a man.

While Busy Graham’s activism has been most visible in her commitment to the arts, she has a deep passion for the environment which has grown out of several jobs she has held. Her goal is to live responsibly with the smallest footprint possible and to promote environmental education in our schools through the arts.

Busy will be working with Ellen Vatne General, founder and former director of the Avalon Theatre, Suzy Moore and the Avalon Foundation staff, and the Multi-Cultural Festival Committee, in producing this year’s Multi-Cultural Festival and Earth Day Celebration in Idlewild Park on May 2. (See box below for further details.)

“I, of course, share the growing concerns about the global impact of climate change. Evidence abounds that we are facing a very real crisis,” Graham states.

While looking ahead to the environmental challenges we are facing, Graham comments that “’Slow-and-steady-wins-the-race’ might have been applicable 50 years ago when Earth Day was first founded, but that now, with climate change accelerating at an alarming rate, we are going to have to pick up the pace in a big way, for survival’s sake.”

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