When three University of Missouri-Kansas City students organized the first Earth Day in Kansas City on April 22, 1970, the issues were dirty water and air. Now, 45 years later, they are concerned about climate change and how the next generation of leaders will solve even bigger problems.
1970 KC Earth Day organizers
Joe Werner, George Saleh and Bill Hannay were UMKC students in 1970, and they wanted to raise environmental awareness on global topics that also touched close to home.
“Back in 1970, the Big Blue River and Kansas (Kaw) River were tremendously polluted,” remembers Werner, a retired biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We wanted to raise awareness of pesticide runoff and unregulated dumping in rivers. We were also concerned about the indiscriminant shooting of hawks, eagles and other birds that weren’t protected.”
Thousands of students and Kansas Citians attended the daylong Earth Day events that spanned two city parks and the UMKC campus. With the help of Richard Myers, a biology professor, and James Jeans, a law professor, the students had scheduled speakers on over-harvesting fisheries, clean water and air, and wildlife protection. They enlisted the help of Randall Jessee, a news broadcaster and director at WDAF-TV who went on to become director of what is now the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). Jessee helped the students get funding and connected them to Mayor Charles Wheeler, who gave them permission to use Jacob L. Loose Park and Frank A. Theis Memorial Park, commonly known as Volker Park. To draw attention to their efforts, they invited musicians Brewer & Shipley, Danny Cox and Jerry Vandiver — performers who would later go on to national acclaim.
“We know we had an educational impact that day,” says Hannay. “Many students and young professionals were hearing about environmental issues for the first time, and young people realized they could have a profound influence on their country.”
Joining a national movement
The UMKC students were at the beginning of a much larger environmental movement. Earth Day founder U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, instigated the day after a 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, CA raised environmental concerns. Nationwide, he tapped the student anti-war movement and modeled Earth Day as a “national teach-in on the environment.” He enlisted Pete McCloskey, a California Republican congressman, to serve as Earth Day co-chair.
On that first Earth Day, more than 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums in coast-to-coast rallies to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife.
Earth Day 1970 was recognized as a political alignment, with support from Republicans and Democrats and a wide cross-section of the American public. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts under the administration of President Richard Nixon.