September 15, 2014, by Rue Mapp
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion is publishing special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the third of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.
Conservationist and civil-rights activist Frank Peterman was in his twenties during the 1960s. He recalls a great and daily sense of urgency about civil-rights issues—an urgency that did not carry over to environmental concerns. For him, the March on Washington alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis was the era’s galvanizing event, one that called for equitable access to jobs and quality of life for blacks in America and an end to institutionally protected physical brutality.
“As a part of the NAACP effort to advance the Civil Rights Act, we did not discuss the Wilderness Act,” Peterman says, “and we were not invited to participate in their caucus.” Even though the momentum of each act was politically symbiotic, he says that those driving the wilderness-protection agenda might have deliberately avoided including African Americans. From his perspective, “the Wilderness Act was about protecting the wild, not people.”
It appears that the Wilderness and Civil Rights Acts did not share a public platform during the 1960s, and some believe an opportunity was missed that could have altered the course of both movements. Dr. Carolyn Finney, assistant professor at the University of California, was a young child during the ‘60s, and while she remembers few events of the era, like most African-American children of her generation she grew up with the movement’s tales and heroes evergreen on the family tongue. “Civil rights? Yes,” she says, “I always knew what that was about!”