Earth Day at 50: Its Early Role in Sowing Social Justice

by Gary Paul Nabhan
Guest Contributor


When plans for the first Earth Day caught my attention in the fall of 1969, I was a curly-haired, sleepy-headed Lebanese-American seventeen year-old who had met only one other Arab-American who called himself an environmentalist: Ralph Nader. Brief meetings with Nader and Barry Commoner inspired me to take a leave from college to work as an intern at the fledgling headquarters for what was initially called the “national environmental teach-in.”

Even when I worked for Nader as “watchdog” two years later in the summer of 1971, I don’t believe I knew many African-, Arab-, Asian- or Latino-Americans who used the “E-word” very often. Fewer still joined environmental organizations or asserted that the care for the environment was at the top of their list of social concerns.

That June, Motown’s Marvin Gaye released a prophetic lamentation, “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” which was widely acclaimed by all races. But the technical name for environmental science embedded in the title of that hit song did not yet easily roll off the tongues of most Americans.

“Ecology” or “environmentalism” were simply not words I heard spoken among the Blacks, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, and Greeks I worked with in the steel mills, sewage treatment plants, and railroad yards of Gary, Indiana. Even though Gary was one of the first cities to have an African-American mayor, and Mayor Richard Hatcher gave speeches at Earth Day rallies during that era, few of my age in that Rust Belt town aspired to be environmentalists. 

And yet, those first Earth Day celebrations in April of 1970 had engaged 20 million people of most every race, creed and ethnicity living in the United States. The phrase “environmental justice” had not yet been coined, but even without a name for that yearning, environmental justice was somehow part of what propelled Earth Day to become more than a national holiday. It grew into an international movement that now engages millions of people from over 200 countries as we annually honor our Common Home.

As an Arab-American man involved in Earth Day from the beginning, I would like to share my perspective on the inclusivity of this movement, as we celebrate its 50th anniversary. I have personally felt a level of dissonance and contradiction between my own experience participating in the environmental movement, and the very valid concerns I have heard raised by other communities of color. How can we make sense of this dissonance, and move forward together into an even more sustainable and equitable movement?


I’ve pondered this riddle for a half century, and yet I’ve failed to come to any easy verdict about whether or not Earth Day has increasingly become an elitist phenomenon dominated by developed countries in the Global North, or whether it represents all people of color shouting out their needs in the 350-some languages still heard on this planet.

There can be no doubt the Earth Day still carries some baggage of early racist and classist strains of environmentalism.  On the other hand, seeing Earth Day images such as a Latino child dressed in green and carrying a photo of our Singing Planet on a beautiful spring morning in late April helps me feels like the notion of planetary citizen is embraced by many cultures today. 

Recently, I’ve done some historical sleuthing and sought interviews with several of the “elders” who led the way that first Earth Day. What I’ve uncovered is that from its very inception, the Earth Day “project” struggled to foster more racial inclusiveness in the environmental movement at large.

But even if you grant its founders some credit in aiming for events that would appeal to a broad and diverse base of Americans, at times it missed its mark. Like most social movements, there is still so much work to do to reset the balance toward equity and inclusivity. The perennial questions of “for whom” and “by whom” have never left the room.

It is no overstatement to claim that at the roots of the American environmental movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the first national environmental organizations were founded by an educated elite who were, for the most part, as much part of the Industrial Revolution as they were the Nature Study movement. These wealthy European American hunters, bird watchers, flower pickers, authors, naturalists, and anglers helped draw public awareness to mounting environmental problems such as habitat and species loss.

However intent they were on protecting imperiled species or landscapes, the ways they attempted to “protect nature” often had the effect of displacing Native Americans, poor Black farmers, or recent immigrants from other lands. Few communities of color escaped being wounded in some way by the anti-immigration, white supremacist, and colonialist policies that plagued America—and continue to divide us to this day.


In recent conversations with Chicano activist Arturo Sandoval—the only person of color on the first Earth Day’s national organizing team—I was somewhat surprised and reassured by his tentative answers to my Earth Day riddle. We confessed to one another how we sometimes felt culturally isolated from our own ethnicities while we worked at the headquarters in D.C. At the same time, we felt fully accepted, supported, validated, and inspired by others on the staff.

It is fair to say that all members of the organizing team wanted to promote an inter-racial, inclusive environmental movement with the concerns of minorities at center stage. They just didn’t know how to get there in the six short months of organizing prior to April 22, 1970.

That said, Senator Gaylord Nelson and Congressman Pete McCloskey (the co-founders) and Denis Hayes (the national coordinator) wanted to shift the paradigm toward engaging a broader range of Americans. They wanted to enable individuals of all races and faiths to be empowered and better protected through environmental action. They wanted to change who had access to healthy landscapes, who received damages from lawsuits against bad actors, and who shaped the future of a more inclusive movement. They aspired to hear voices never before listened to with regard to environmental issues, and they radically changed the strategies for organizing a national event like Earth Day: away from a top-down model, toward a distributive, participatory, grassroots model.

By recalling and even reaffirming some of these sensibilities now, and embracing others that have emerged since then, perhaps we can reset the trajectory of the environmental movement even more toward environmental justice, supporting the present and future generations of environmental leaders of color in more concrete ways than the last half century has offered.

More than ever before, we need to follow the lead of frontline communities in working for more racial, ethnic, gender, and economic justice in our ongoing environmental work. This is especially critical if we are to transition to a sustainable and equitable future in the face of all the havoc that climate, disease and economic disruptions (including the current pandemic) are now generating.


Many of the shifts toward a participatory and distributive model of environmental organizing began to occur because Senator Gaylord Nelson, the so-called “Father of Earth Day,” opted out of leading the charge, and he also refused to let government agencies control the agenda. Instead, he incorporated an independent non-profit to organize the event, and then let youthful activists who had recently been engaged in the civil rights and peace movements set the agenda.

Nelson did, however, lay out a beautiful vision for them to consider as they initiated their work:

Our goal is not just an environment of clean air, water, and scenic beauty while forgetting about the worst environments in America. Our goal is for an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings, and all other living creatures.

From the fall of 1969 into the winter months of 1970, many activists were arriving in from rural farmlands and urban ghettos to the national capitol, in order to help organize what would become one of the largest protest marches in U.S. history. It was the Moratorium to End the War in Viet Nam, which I attended along with a quarter million other youth on October 15, 1969. That is probably when many of us first learned of the teach-ins planned for the next spring.

From Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 to the Delano Grape Boycott and Strike from 1965 to 1970, college-age activists had not only became radicalized, but they learned new grassroots organizing techniques. Some of these techniques were no doubt handed down from civil rights strategists trained by Myles Horton’s Highlander Center for Research and Education in Tennessee, Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Area Foundation in Illinois, and Fred Ross’s Community Service Organization in California. They applied the strategies refined at these training centers to register minority voters, to organize strikes and demonstrations, and to initiate grassroots events.

One of the first Earth Day’s National Organizing Team members was Sam Love of Mississippi, whom I worked for at Earth Day HQ in DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. in the early months of 1970. Sam had achieved some fame at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 when he joined the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in challenging the all-white delegation of segregationists who claimed they represented the Democratic Party of Mississippi. Together they took the podium to protest the structural racism in their state, prompting all of the segregationists from Mississippi to walk out of the Convention.

But when Sam offered me his own history of engagement in social and environmental justice, he humbly claimed, “I was only a bit player in the civil rights movement… [suing] the board of trustees at Mississippi State to allow civil rights leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer to speak on campus…and supporting voter registration efforts” for blacks in precincts where another voting activist had been assassinated. (Sam Love also shared the podium with Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.) For decades, Sam remained involved in fighting the extreme exposure to toxins that rural farmworkers and urban workers in the oil, chemical and nuclear industries suffered, especially in low-income communities.

Sam was not alone in such concerns. Denis Hayes, the principal coordinator of Earth Day, recalled to me how he flew to Atlanta to seek out the advice and collaboration of Ralph Abernathy. Abernathy was the African-American minister who took over the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. After a brief but cordial meeting with Abernathy, Hayes conceded that while civil rights leaders fully understood environmental racism,

They had bigger fish to fry at the moment. They were fighting for decent schools, voting rights, housing, etc.…Our strongest mainstream African-American ally was probably George Wiley, head of the National Welfare Rights Organization. His membership was almost entirely Black, and as a PhD chemist, he had a deep understanding of chemical poisoning in the workplace.

Arturo Sandoval, the sole person of color on the National Organizing Team, was born and raised in Espanola, New Mexico. Since age 17, Arturo had been energized by the surge of land rights activism among “la Raza” in northern New Mexico, in what later became known to outsiders as the Tierra o Muerte movement. Then, in the winter of 1969–1970, he jumped into the Earth Day dance, assuming that land rights and the banning of agrichemicals killing his farm-working neighbors would be part of the puzzle.

Hayes and other members of the organizing team claim that Sandoval had a special role in making environmental concerns credible to minority populations: “Arturo had obvious credibility talking about the daily showers of pesticides falling on Chicano field workers and the nitrate poisoning in their drinking water.”

Speaking to Arturo fifty years later in his office at the Center of Southwest Culture in Albuquerque, Arturo agreed:

I simply saw my work with the Earth Day team as an extension of my civil rights and peace activism on behalf of La Raza.

But then he added,

And yet, when I first contacted Chicano activists in East L.A. about being part of Earth Day, they responded to me with mild bemusement, or indifference. They were struggling against the dominant culture, and didn’t initially view environmental issues as a priority.

Immediately after leaving his constituency-building efforts focused on minorities at the Earth Day headquarters, Arturo organized an Earth Day rally of Hispanic, Mexican, and Native Puebloan and Navajo people in his home state. He sought to close a foul-smelling solid waste treatment plant that had been imposed upon one of the poorest neighborhoods in Albuquerque, New Mexico, without the consent of its Spanish-speaking residents. Arturo and a mariachi band led a multicultural protest march down the banks of the Rio Grande to the site for a demonstration. Their efforts ultimately led to the relocation of the waste treatment facility. That 1970 rally is likely the first successful environmental justice initiative led by people of color in the U.S. Southwest.

Another team member, Steve Cotton, reminded me that the entire organizing team opted for focusing national media attention for the evening news on Arturo’s march and rally. When the national networks claimed they could not get film footage back from Albuquerque to New York in time for the evening news, Arturo played hardball with them, refusing to give them even a sound-byte about his rally.

Finally, ABC and CBS agreed to cover the event on prime time news if Arturo could schedule his speech a half hour earlier than had been planned. At the last minute, a deal was reached, and Arturo’s speech at the rally became a landmark moment in Earth Day history.  


In some social histories of the environmental movement, when non-profit organizations got big and some became dependent on financial support from federal agencies, Earth Day became more of a “feel good” holiday. Businesses, universities, and NGOs offered free samples, pamphlets, and t-shirts to the masses, but avoided discussion of the tougher issues facing society. You could purchase Earth Day baseball caps, green apparel, wood-pulp free books, and hear sweet acoustic music in public parks. It seemed sugar coated, commoditized, and dumbed-down. In many suburbs, green was also matched with lily white as the colors of the day. 

While the internationalization of Earth Day intensified, parts of the U.S. environmental movement seemed to stall, or swirl around, as if stuck in an eddy. But then, a fiercer and more dynamic integration of the environmental movement with the civil rights movement began to happen.

In October 1991, following over a decade of research and activism regarding the connection between toxic waste and racism in the United States and elsewhere, African-American activists Dana Alston, Robert Bullard, and Benjamin Chavis, Jr. brought 300 African, Asian, Latino, and Native American leaders together. At that first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference, Dana Alston noted how “people of color gathered not in reaction to the environmental movement, but rather to reaffirm their traditional connection to and respect for the natural world.” 

That is not to deny the participants’ concerns that there was structural racism deeply embedded in most federal environmental agencies and national environmental organizations. There was, and they knew that it was impeding solutions to their communities’ problems.  But they wanted to be part of environmental problem solving, rather than merely critiquing the status quo or distancing themselves from other players.

Thousands of environmental professionals of color have shown their strengths in forging effective community solutions ever since.

For the last decade, the real excitement in the environmental movement is the grassroots and engagement of youth climate change activists on every continent and island across the planet. We now see communities of color and faith are leading the way in dealing with climate disruptions, in addressing environmental injustices, and in calling for the divestment of stocks and boycotting of banks holding up the fossil fuel industry. In many ways, the leadership of the environmental movement has shifted to the Global South and to the Far North, where the risks of business-as-usual are most evident.

Senator Nelson’s daughter Tia recently reminded all of us, “My father’s original vision was of an inclusive, bipartisan environmental movement rooted in social justice…. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Gary Paul Nabhan is an Arab-American nature writer and conservation biologist who worked at the first Earth Day’s HQ on two separate occasions. Of Lebanese and Syrian descent, Nabhan is author of a recent retrospective on environmental and food justice movements since 1970, Food from the Radical Center, from Island Press. Follow him at

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