The first Earth Day in 1970 succeeded beyond founder Gaylord Nelson's wildest dreams, spreading like a prairie fire from the time he announced it in September 1969 in a Seattle speech. Seven months later, 20 million people -- 10% of the US population -- participated in the first Earth Day.
But Earth Day was not without its detractors.
The right-wing John Birch Society did not like the date Nelson had chosen. April 22, 1970 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, and Earth Day was nothing but an ill-disguised attempt to honor the revolutionary Communist leader, they claimed.
“Subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them,” a Mississippi delegate to a Daughters of the American Revolution convention warned.
Nelson had chosen the date as the one that could maximize participation on college campuses. He determined that the week of April 19-25 was the best bet. It did not fall during exams or spring breaks, did not conflict with religious holidays such as Easter or Passover, and was late enough in spring to have decent weather. More students were likely to be in class, and there would be less competition with other events mid-week, so he chose Wednesday, April 22.
Nelson had no idea it was Lenin’s birthday, but he did some research and had a response ready when the question came up, as it did with some frequency.
With only 365 days a year and 3.7 billion people in the world, every day was the birthday of ten million living people, Nelson explained. “On any given day, a lot of both good and bad people were born,” he said. “A person many consider the world’s first environmentalist, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born on April 22. So was Queen Isabella. More importantly, so was my Aunt Tillie.”
His humor defused the question, but some took it seriously and worried whether it was a left wing plot of some kind.
The Los Angeles City Council passed an Earth Day resolution, but only after sharp debate, and voting 8-6 for an amendment expressing “concern” about the date and a hope that it would be changed in future years.
The date, of course, stayed on April 22.
It was just today that I uncovered more evidence that maybe there was a sinister reason for the date selection. Not only is it Lenin's birthday, and Aunt Tillie's. It is also the birthday of Paul Soglin, who was a student alderman in Madison at the time of the first observance and in 1973 was elected as Madison's Red Mayor.