Wilderness and Civil Rights 50 Years Later: Recognizing the Ties of Race and Place

We'd all do well to consider the Civil Rights and the Wilderness Act together if we are to understand this society -- for preserving wild lands and putting an end to Jim Crow segregation have more to do with each other than meets the eye.
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After years of pressure from America's conservation groups, the wilderness bill went through 66 revisions and 18 hearings before being passed with overwhelming support in Congress -- and becoming the Wilderness Act, signed into law on this day a half century ago.

Just two months earlier, the 88th Congress had also passed another landmark piece of legislation -- the Civil Rights Act. Most Americans rarely think of these laws together. Yet we'd all do well to if we are to understand this society -- for preserving wild lands and putting an end to Jim Crow segregation have more to do with each other than meets the eye.

This great conservation achievement and this key step toward social justice came about through 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 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.

In contrast to the wilderness bill's path, 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 to 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, 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.

Both bills fomented controversy around private property rights and the power of states, passing as bipartisan compromises. Both laws became the latest iterations of federal policies on race and resources formulated since the country's founding.

The 1870s, for instance, were also a decade of confluence. The Reconstruction Congress created Yellowstone as the first national park, a "wonderland" preserved from private interests "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Yet post-war legislation to safeguard the rights of once-enslaved African Americans, including rights to land, began to be eroded. At the same time the U.S. Army removed to reservations Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, "Sheep Eater," and other tribal peoples from ancestral homelands now contained within the national park. Its first superintendent declared that "Yellowstone is not Indian country."

The Wilderness and Civil Rights acts are pieces of a complex story about Americans coming to terms with their history, their geography, and their hopes. Wilderness, as an idea and as preserved land, has never existed apart from this society in which racial and economic injustice was part of the status quo. As a movement for justice and as law, civil rights evolved in response to systems of discrimination that, among other impacts, circumscribed access to resources and mobility on the American land.

Without these laws much more of this country and its opportunities would be fenced off with "no trespassing" signs -- whether public facilities, businesses, workplaces or schools denying access to citizens, whether vast portions of the West worked by mines or other commercial interests. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System protects almost 110 million acres of federal lands -- about five percent of the nation -- within national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and lands under the Bureau of Land Management.

The political climate of 2014 is quite different from that of 1964, and the work is far from over. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, while public schools remain more segregated by class and race than decades ago. And the wilderness preservation system has stirred debate even among friends of wild lands.

Some suggest that the Wilderness Act, and ideas behind it -- protecting for all citizens areas of this nation "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man" -- are more relevant than ever. Others respond that the law has far outlived its usefulness in this time of rapid and vast environmental changes. Foes of the act are trying to gut it. More than two dozen wilderness bills, introduced by members of both parties, have stalled in Congress.

Yet the 50th Anniversary National Wilderness Planning Team (Wilderness50), a coalition of federal agencies, non-profits, and other interested groups, is taking a step forward. Its commemoration plans recognize that "the assumptions of the Wilderness Act, valuable and pathbreaking in many ways ... led to a 'non-inclusive' movement around the wilderness concept" that alienated many.
The fiftieth anniversaries of the Wilderness and Civil Rights acts offer us a chance to learn 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 could become better equipped to look forward, aware of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship as interconnected cultural, historical, and ecological beings.

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 ethical horizons both acts sought to broaden are still ours to reach.

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