Blog Post Lauret Savoy Sep 3, 2014

Fifty Years Later: Wilderness & Civil Rights in the Same Breath

This summer marks the 50-year anniversary of two landmark pieces of legislation—the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act—that are linked more closely than they might seem.

Fifty years ago this summer, the 88th Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act, two landmark pieces of legislation that most Americans rarely consider in the same breath. Yet we’d all do well to, if we are to understand our society. Ending Jim Crow segregation and protecting wild land have more to do with each other than meets the eye.

This key step toward social justice and this great conservation achievement came about through the long-term efforts of reform movements commonly seen as unrelated. But the agendas of these movements had long intersected, braiding around each other, often colliding, and, from time to time, reaching common purpose.

Their energies converged two remarkable months apart in 1964 with two laws that redefined relations between citizens and the American land, in terms of rights and access for all versus restraints on where and how people could live with dignity.

That consequential summer began with the murders of three young civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and ended as the presidential race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater—“All the way with LBJ” v. “In your heart, you know he’s right”—entered its last leg. Johnson pushed hard for the passage of both acts.

To become Public Law 88-352 on July 2nd, the civil rights bill provoked the longest continuous debate in Senate history, as southerners filibustered for two months. Only a bipartisan coalition could invoke cloture and allow a vote. Even after being watered down to placate moderate Republicans, the Civil Rights Act became the most sweeping law since Reconstruction aimed to protect voting rights, limit job discrimination, and ban segregation. Schools, libraries, and swimming pools, as well as hotels, theaters, and restaurants now, by law, had to welcome every American regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.

At the same time, another legislative battle took place. The Wilderness Act required 66 revisions and 18 congressional hearings over eight years before President Johnson signed it as Public Law 88-577 on September 3rd. Recognizing the intrinsic value of “wild” portions of the public domain, the act defined wilderness “as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man.” It created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which set aside an initial 9.1 million acres—among them the Bob Marshall and Boundary Waters Canoe Area wildernesses—and established both the criteria and process for adding more. Today the system protects nearly 110 million acres of federal lands—about five percent of the nation’s land base—within national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and lands under the Bureau of Land Management.

Both bills stirred up controversy around private property rights and the power of states and ultimately passed as bipartisan compromises. Both laws became the latest iterations of federal policies on race and resources formulated across a century. In the 1870s, for instance, a Reconstruction Congress created Yellowstone as the first national park, a “wonderland” preserved from private interests “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” while post-war legislation to safeguard the rights of once-enslaved African Americans, including rights to land, began to be gutted. At the same time the U.S. Army removed Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, “Sheep Eater,” and other tribal peoples to reservations from ancestral homelands now contained in the national park. In the words of its first superintendent, “Yellowstone is not Indian country.”

The Civil Rights and Wilderness acts are pieces of a larger whole, a larger story about Americans coming to terms with their history and their hopes. As a movement for justice and as law, civil rights evolved in response to systems of discrimination that circumscribed access to resources and mobility on the American land. Wilderness, as an idea and as preserved land, never existed apart from human experience, from this society. Without these laws, much more of this country and its opportunities would be fenced off with “no trespassing” signs—whether vast portions of the West worked by mines or other commercial interests, whether public facilities, private businesses, workplaces, or schools refusing many citizens.

A half century later, the work is far from over. Only a year ago, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And today, more than two dozen wilderness bills, introduced by members of both parties, have stalled in Congress.

As he called to end the Senate filibuster against the civil rights bill, Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen quoted Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” The time to desegregate ideas of who we are with respect to each other and to the American earth is now.

The fiftieth anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act and Wilderness Act offer a chance to recognize how all Americans have benefited from and inherited the legacies of both movements, including the idea of unimpaired access for all. In looking back to their roots to see the intimate ties between race and place, we may become better equipped to look forward, aware of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship as interconnected cultural, historical, and ecological beings. The ethical horizons both acts sought to broaden are still ours to reach.

About the author

  • Lauret Savoy Professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College and NPCA Trustee

    A professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College, Lauret Savoy explores the complex layering of natural and cultural histories, intersections of cultural identity and environmental awareness, and images and ideas about the American Earth. She writes about the stories we tell of the land’s origin and history, and the stories we tell of ourselves in the land.