Our Wild and Civil Rights
As we commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, we might also consider another historic piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act, which was signed in the same year. Given that the two movements were locked in time together, were they perceived as related causes by their allies? What might their connection—or disconnection—mean for people and the environment today and in the future?
Frank Peterman, a conservationist and civil rights activist, was in his twenties during the 1960s. He recalls a great and daily sense of urgency about civil rights issues versus that of environmental concerns. For him, the March on Washington, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, was a galvanizing event 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 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.” He goes on to share that even though the momentum of each act was politically symbiotic, those driving the wilderness protection agenda may not have included African Americans deliberately as a key impetus of the Wilderness Act was about protecting the wild from the spoilage of human impact versus creating equitable access to it. From his perspective, “the Wilderness Act was about the protecting the wild, not people.”
Frank and Audrey Peterman
While it does not appear that the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act shared a public platform back then, some believe an opportunity was missed to bring the acts more pointedly together that might have altered the course and progression of these respective movements today. Dr. Carolyn Finney, Assistant Professor at the University of California was a young child during the civil rights era, and while she personally remembers few specific 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, I always knew what that was about!”
In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, she plots out the interwoven chronology of social and political events that lead up to the civil rights and wilderness act. Even though linked by a common timeline, Dr. Finney believes that the wilderness preservation movement—and the environmental movement, more broadly—missed a golden opportunity to address race that might have helped put conservation on a path toward greater harmony between people and nature, and especially between African Americans and the natural wild. “The conservation movement has traditionally prided itself on a concept of nature as pure,” she says, “which for some, can also be translated to mean whiteness.” She contends that had the Wilderness Act considered the human experience in nature, the traditional conservation movement might not struggle with understanding the connection between its work and that of civil rights—making it better equipped to engage with issues related to diversity and inclusion.
In the collaborative efforts around the country to re-invent African American connections to the environment—my organization, Outdoor Afro, is one of them—it is often essential to address fears that linger about the wild. These fears are not only about potential contact with wildlife: there are still perceptions among black folks that one might be susceptible to violence in the cover of the wild. Because of this pervasive thinking, some of the sturdiest urban brothers and sisters are less likely to warm to the idea of wandering alone in the woods to this day. Within the memory of a living generation, many recall the world in which the plaintive refrain of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit rang true:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
While Jim Crow-style terror in nature is no longer a common occurrence, the legacy of institutionalized exclusion of black people from recreational areas persists. The result of years of discrimination is that, for many people, the experience of being outdoors can feel more like an effort to conquer a fear than enjoyment for its own sake. And, still too often, many black and brown folks face unwelcoming (or over-welcoming) stares, questions, and attitudes while recreating in wild spaces that spell discomfort in places that should be a safe respite from the pace of urban life. This is why we find that so many African Americans from urban areas choose backyard wilderness close to home, surrounded by a reflection of familiar faces and defensible cityscapes versus venturing alone into a remote wilderness area far from home.
Shelton Johnson has been a park ranger with the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park for nearly two decades. His work has flourished on the topic of making the parks more relevant and welcoming for everyone, especially for African Americans. Illustrating both real and composite narratives of the Buffalo Soldier in his guest interpretation talks and in his book Gloryland, Johnson maintains that access to parks in our wild places is ultimately about freedom and provides a platform today to continue the work of civil rights. “The Buffalo Soldiers were sons of slaves, who were compelled to join the military to earn respect and find purpose within the close memory of slavery,” he says. While these soldiers were charged with stewarding land distant from their African roots, Johnson suggests that it proved to be a gateway for belonging and a sense of “owning” in America.
This is the same possibility available to African Americans today in our National Parks. “We are not truly home here in America, unless we engage with the earth to re-connect with the Africans we once were – the hunters, gatherers, horticulturalists – earth bound people,” says Johnson. “So visiting the biome of Yellowstone might also mean a chance to reclaim what it means to be Yoruba, Mandingo – or African American. Whatever you call yourself, it matters little, because it is all the same people, the same earth.”
While the sixties may have been tumultuous, what emerged was a country that dreamed big, had every reason to hope, and found agreement to protect and envision a future for people and resources seen as most vulnerable. In today’s divisive political climate these same actions seem unfathomable, yet remind us of what is possible when we pull together.
We know the work is far from done, but we can pause to celebrate wild lands and the movement to protect them while also respecting the still-sharp memories and historic tensions between people in the wild. With a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations are helping people re-invent connections to natural places both near and far through a variety of peer led activities. One experience at a time, we can replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder for all ages in our lands.
While the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act may not have been originally conceived out of a common network, we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.
Where shall we go together in nature from here?