Michigan and Earth Day

Flags of our Grandparents

Flags of our grandparents, photo by PhotoLab507

Today is the 45th Earth Day, and many many not be aware of Michigan’s role in this holiday. The Ann Arbor Chronicle has an excellent feature titled Turbulent Origins of Ann Arbor’s First Earth Day that looks at the national movement in the late 60s to call attention to environmental degradation:

One of the first tasks facing the national organization was to choose a date for the proposed mass teach-ins. They settled on April 22 – “Earth Day,” as it would eventually be named – largely because that date fell optimally between spring break and final exams for most American colleges. (The fact that it is also Lenin’s birthday is apparently a complete coincidence.) But the University of Michigan operated then as now on a trimester system, with April 22 falling right in the middle of finals. As a result, the U-M environmental teach-in was scheduled for mid-March 1970.

The fact that it took place more than a month prior to national Earth Day has led to the misconception that the ENACT teach-in launched Earth Day, or that U-M was host to the first Earth Day celebration. In fact there were environmental events on other campuses as early as December 1969. But that does not in any way diminish the importance of the Ann Arbor event, which was to have a huge influence on the course of what has been called the largest mass demonstration in American history – Earth Day 1970, in which an estimated 20 million people participated.

“The University of Michigan teach-in was not the first or even the second or third – a few small liberal arts colleges had environmental teach-ins in January and February 1970,” says Adam Rome, a professor of history at Penn State who is working on a book about Earth Day. ”But the Michigan event was by far the biggest, best, and most influential of the pre-Earth Day teach-ins. The media gave it tremendous coverage. It was the first sign that Earth Day would be a big deal.”

…Events ran from the early morning until well after midnight, on topics such as overpopulation – “Sock It to Motherhood: Make Love, Not Babies” – the future of the Great Lakes, the root causes of the ecological crisis, and the effect of war on the environment. More than sixty major media outlets covered the action, including all three American television networks and a film crew from Japan. It was the biggest such event that had yet been seen in Ann Arbor – and coming as it did at the tail end of the sixties, it would be one of the last.

At the kickoff rally around 14,000 people paid fifty cents to crowd into Crisler Arena and listen to speeches by Senator Gaylord Nelson, Michigan governor William Milliken, radio personality Arthur Godfrey, and ecologist Barry Commoner, and groove to the music of Hair and Gordon Lightfoot. Another 3,000 who couldn’t get in listened on loudspeakers that were hastily set up in the parking lot.

Read on for lots more and you can also view a video from the first Earth Day at the University of Michigan Bentley Library.

The photographer shared a nice lyric too from Carol Johnson:

The Earth is my mother / She good to me / she gives me everything that I ever need
food on the table/ the clothes I wear/ the sun and the water and the cool, fresh air

View the photo bigger and see more in their slideshow.

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