Nelson was deeply concerned about the environmental problems facing the nation and frustrated that the environment seemed to have no place in U.S. politics. Inspired by the success of teach-ins being held on college campuses by Vietnam War protesters, Nelson envisioned Earth Day as an environmental teach-in, which would show other politicians that there was widespread public support for the environment.
Nelson chose Denis Hayes, a student attending the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, to organize the first Earth Day. Working with a staff of volunteers, Hayes put together an agenda of environmental events that drew 20 million Americans to join together in celebration of the Earth on April 22, 1970—an event that American Heritage magazine later called, "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy."
Another Earth Day Proposal
At about the same time that Nelson was having his brainstorm about an environmental teach-in to be called Earth Day, a man named John McConnell was coming up with a similar notion, but on a global scale.
While attending the UNESCO Conference on the Environment in 1969, McConnell proposed the idea of a global holiday called Earth Day, an annual observance to remind people worldwide of their shared responsibility as environmental stewards and their common need to preserve Earth's natural resources.
McConnell, an entrepreneur, newspaper publisher, and peace and environmental activist, chose the first day of spring, or vernal equinox, (usually March 20 or 21) as the perfect day for Earth Day, because it is a day that symbolized renewal. McConnell's proposal was eventually accepted by the United Nations, and on February 26, 1971, U.N. Secretary General U Thant signed a proclamation declaring an international Earth Day and saying the U.N. would celebrate the new holiday annually on the vernal equinox.
What Happened to the Earth Day Founders?
McConnell, Nelson and Hayes all continued to be strong environmental advocates long after Earth Day was founded.
In 1976, McConnell and anthropologist Margaret Mead founded the Earth Society Foundation, which drew dozens of Nobel laureates as sponsors. And he later published his "77 Theses on the Care of Earth" and the "Earth Magna Charta."
In 1995, President Bill Clinton presented Nelson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in founding Earth day and for raising public awareness of environmental issues and promoting environmental action.
Hayes has received the Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Public Service, several awards of appreciation and achievement from the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, The Natural Resources Council of America, and many other groups. And in 1999, Time magazine named Hayes "Hero of the Planet."