Liberal Activists Have to Think Broadly and Unite Across LinesRoundup
tags: environmental history, labor, Earth Day, protests, Coalitions
Matthew D. Lassiter is professor of history at the University of Michigan and the co-creator, along with eight undergraduate students, of “Give Earth a Chance: Environmental Activism in Michigan,” a digital exhibit from which this essay is drawn.
Fifty years before Greta Thunberg inspired youth across the globe to demand immediate action on climate change, students at the University of Michigan formed Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT) and organized a massive four-day Teach-In on the Environment from March 11-14, 1970. These campus activists popularized the slogan “Give Earth a Chance” and held more than 125 rallies, symposia, workshops and protests on the campus and in the surrounding Ann Arbor community. The ENACT Teach-In successfully focused public attention on the environmental crisis, paving the way for the national Earth Day demonstrations that mobilized 20 million participants on April 22, 1970.
The ENACT Teach-In highlighted the principles of ecological sustainability and environmental justice and played a key role in expanding the mainstream environmental movement beyond its traditional emphasis on white middle-class issues such as wilderness preservation and suburban quality of life. The Earth Day campaign included many civil rights activists who connected urban pollution to racial and economic discrimination and called on campus-based environmentalists to bridge the gulf to the inner cities. Contrary to conventional wisdom, organized labor also played a central role. Barbara Reid Alexander, a Michigan graduate who served as the Midwest coordinator for Earth Day in 1970, insists that the strong support for radical environmental policies by Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers has been “lost in recent years for the progressive agenda.”
The first Earth Day had a national rather than a global scope, but the fundamental message and organizing strategy applies to today’s global movement: everything is interconnected, and environmental justice and sustainability require grass roots mobilization and confrontation with power.
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