Teach-ins before Earth Day

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This letter to Gaylord Nelson describes a fall 1969 symposium organized by the National Teach-In on World Community at Columbia University and their plans for a spring 1970 teach-in.

The letter illustrates the type of campus activism Nelson would have been hearing about as he developed the idea for Earth Day, which his early plans called the "National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment."[1]

The first teach-in took place in March 1965 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where faculty sought some method other than a strike to express their opposition to the Vietnam War. At the suggestion of anthropologist Professor Marshall Sahlins, rather than cancel classes in protest they elected to lecture into the evening and through the night, making analytical and moral arguments against the Vietnam War and educating audiences.

The Michigan teach-in effectiveness led to its widespread replication at colleges and universities around the country. Anti-war teach-ins were a common ocurrence at Columbia leading up to, and following, the protests of April 1968 when students seized buildings to force the university to refuse defense contracts and halt its belligerent expansion into Harlem.

This letter's attachments about the October 1969 Teach-in on World Community at Columbia reveal a high-profile, star-studded list of speakers atypical of many teach-ins. It suggests how much cultural power this form of protest had accumulated in the four years since Ann Arbor.

Activists in 1969 were also searching for common ground among converging issues. The attachment lists a slate of prominent figures from the anti-war, civil rights, and anti-nuclear movements, including Mark Rudd who had been expelled by Columbia for his involvement in the previous year's upheavals.

Earth Day teach-ins in April 1970 also attracted a similar convergence of issues, although narrowed somewhat by the environmental focus of the day. This cross-issue communication and national energy forged the modern environmental movement.


1 See document Congressional Record October 1969 for more context on this quote.