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The First Earth Day Was 50 Years Ago, But These Photos Feel Timeless

Fifty years ago, before the environment was seen as a political cause, it united everyone.

Posted on April 22, 2020, at 7:04 a.m. ET

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Students march through the business district of suburban St. Louis on April 22, 1970, protesting against smog caused by automobiles.

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, millions of Americans around the country went outside for teach-ins and community cleanup events, in addition to marches protesting the mistreatment of the planet.

Compared to protests about racial inequality or the Vietnam War, the environment at the time was seen as a neutral cause that everyone could get behind — so much so that the original Earth Day was proposed by a US senator (Gaylord Nelson, from Wisconsin of all places) who worked with ecology professor Morton Hilbert and activist Denis Hayes to put it all together.

There hadn't been a concerted public effort to undermine science yet, so the main counterargument to Earth Day at the time was that because it fell on the 100th anniversary of Lenin's birthday, the movement was somehow communist. In actuality, the date had been chosen at random because it suited college break schedules.

There wasn't another Earth Day celebration until 1990, and it didn't become an annual event until 2000. While climate change was not yet a major topic at the original Earth Day, some of the demands for sustainable energy and more careful consumption are in line with the student-led climate marches of 2019, which drew millions of schoolchildren to the streets.

AP Photo

Kenneth Opat is squirted with oil pistols by Dorothy Goldsmith (left) and Rita Webb at Tulane University in New Orleans as students tagged Louisiana's oil industry with the "polluter of the month" award, April 22, 1970.

Tom Colburn / The Houston Chronicle via AP

Memorial High students in Houston left their cars at home on the first Earth Day.

Santi Visalli / Getty Images

The first Earth Day in New York City.

The Denver Post via Getty Images | The Boston Globe / Getty Images

Left: Kurt Amuedo displays a poster about air pollution for Earth Day at his school. Right: Demonstrators in Boston wore masks to remind people of the perils of air pollution.

Santi Visalli / Getty Images

Earth Day in New York City.

Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Thousands of people form a mile-long procession during an Earth Walk in Philadelphia, April 22, 1970.

AP Photo

An estimated 7,000 people gather at the Independence Mall in Philadelphia, on the first Earth Day.

The Boston Globe / Getty Images

Earth Day on the Boston Common, April 22, 1970.

John Prieto / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Alameda High School students stack up recyclable waste material they had collected in scavenger hunts in connection with an Earth Day observance/teach-in Denver, April 22, 1970.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Children use push brooms to sweep a city park during the first Earth Day in New York City.

The Boston Globe via Getty Images | Charles W. Harrity / AP Photo

Left: Students build a "world" of tin cans at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts for Earth Day, April 21, 1970. Right, Denis Hayes, head of the Environment Teach-In, the Washington organization coordinating activities for Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Union Square Park in New York City, April 22, 1970.

Idaho Statesman via Getty Images

Members of Beta Sigma Phi fraternity at what was then Boise State College remove old cars from the foothills above the city on April 22, 1970.

AP Photo | The Denver Post via Getty Images

Left: Judy Moody coordinates school activities in the office of the Environment Teach-In in Washington, DC, before the nationwide observance of Earth Day on April 22. Right: A protest sign for Earth Day is seen in Denver.

Bill Peters / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Bicyclists ride in Denver on the first Earth Day.

AP Photo

A Pace College student in a gas mask "smells" a magnolia blossom on the first Earth Day in New York City.

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Students paddle down the Milwaukee River on homemade rafts on the first Earth Day to protest water pollution.

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Clearwater, a sloop built to promote the antipollution cause, sails down the Hudson River past a junkyard on its way during Earth Day activities, April 22, 1970.

Lambert / Getty Images


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