Wilderness at 50: Our Wild and Civil Rights

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!”

In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, she plots the interwoven chronology of events that led to the Civil Rights and Wilderness Acts. Dr. Finney believes that, though linked to the civil-rights movement in time, the wilderness preservation movement (and the environmental movement, more broadly) missed a golden opportunity to address race that could have built greater harmony between people and nature, especially for African Americans. “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 environmentalists considered more deeply the human experience in nature, the conservation movement might have been better equipped to engage with issues related to diversity and inclusion.


In the collaborative efforts around the country to reinvent 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 human violence in the cover of the wild. Because of this pervasive thinking, some of the sturdiest urban brothers and sisters are to this day less likely to warm to the idea of wandering alone in the woods. 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. A 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. This is why we find that so many African Americans from urban areas choose backyard nature close to home, surrounded by familiar faces and defensible cityscapes, instead of venturing alone into a remote wilderness area.

Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson has worked for years to make the national parks more relevant and welcoming for everyone, especially for African Americans. Illustrating both real and composite narratives of the Buffalo Soldiers in his guest interpretation talks and in his book, Gloryland, Johnson maintains that access to wild places is ultimately about freedom and a platform to continue the work of the civil-rights movement. “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 their work proved to be a gateway for belonging and a sense of ownership in America.

That possibility is available to African Americans today in our national parks. “We are not truly home here in America,” Johnson says, “unless we engage with the earth to re-connect with the Africans we once were—the hunters, gatherers, horticulturalists—earth bound people. 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 1960s in America were tumultuous, what emerged was a country that dreamed big, had every reason to hope, and found agreement to protect the people and resources seen as most vulnerable. In today’s divisive political climate, those same actions seem unfathomable, yet they remind us of what is possible when we pull together.

Fifty years on, we know the work is far from finished—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 and nature. With a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations are helping people reinvent 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.

While the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act might not have been conceived together, we have a chance today to make their real connections come alive.

Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an award-winning national network that supports connections between African Americans and the natural world.


  1. I grew up in the Florida panhandle…the very deep south. I am white, but my memories of vegetable gardens and flowers come mostly from glimpsing them in the yards of black people. That is not exactly the wilderness, but I can still picture the five foot tall collard plants in many back yards and the gourd vines in the scrub oak trees. Essie had coffee cans blooming with impatiens on her front porch steps because she loved flowers. The black owner of the lawnmower shop, Mr. Robinson, remembered searching for herbs in the woods with his grandmother. She knew these things. These people had an intimate relationship with nature. It was food; it was healing; it was beauty. My white boss wishes she had paid more attention to her grandmother’s knowledge of Appalachian herbs. I feel blessed that my extended family loved flowers and gardening, but we were on the outskirts of town. You never saw gardens with heart in the suburban yards.
    I live in North Carolina now and used to have a farm. In my rural county of mostly white people, it was the older folks who religiously maintained gardens or actually farmed. The younger ones just put the fields in hay so the least amount of work was involved. As a nation, most of us don’t even know how to cook anymore.
    Parts of my town and the surrounding countryside are very vibrant with inspired growing. But in general, what happened? How did we, both black and white, loose our connection to our very sustenance…our Mother Earth who supplies our truly vital needs – food and water? Food and water. Beyond the practical, nature enchants at every turn. The wildness you speak of beckons at the heart of every human…the skies with clouds that tell us what weather is coming…the stars that help us find our way…the salt of ocean on our lips…the whisper of leaves in the woods…the wonders found in one tiny patch of ground. Our genes remember. These things are the birthright of humankind. These things feed the soul. I hope we can all find the courage to reclaim them despite the odds. What an honorable task you have undertaken as you seek to “replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder.”

  2. Thank you so much Rue for so brilliantly articulating the divergence of the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act. My husband Frank whom you quote has also suggested that 60s leaders may have concluded – as some of today’s conservation leaders still do – that the black race had too many “survival” concerns to have time or interest for protecting natural resources. However that may be, it’s time for all of us to put the past behind and engage the penultimate challenge of our time – climate change. For people of color that means affirming our rights and responsibilities to
    be part of the process as we are doing with http://Www.delnsb.com, and for white leaders it means getting rid of those patronizing lens.

  3. Hello Rue, Thank you for this blog that magnifies what our collective body is doing to heal.

    I was at a gathering this week about the land ethic. The gathering was on the health of the youth participants of Urban Wilderness Works returning from their 17-day “wilderness” trip in the North Cascades National Park. What struck me in both arenas was that there is a deep a-historic perception of our experiences in this nation. While “we” know that “we” carry historical trauma many other people seem to have “no idea” that we have to muster additional courage to enjoy the wilderness or wild places. We are no more afraid of bears and bugs than other urban folk, but we live with emotional legacy of racial violence.

    I work hard to immerse youth in the backcountry so that they can react to the land, air and water with a reduced risk of the experiences of being stared at, pointed to, or photographed because seeing Black folks in the wilderness is as rare as seeing an elk. All of these things have happened to us as a group traveling to Washington’s wild places.

    STRANGE FRUIT (http://urbanwildernessproject.org/ru-sf.htm) is the Urban Wilderness Project’s campaign to acknowledge and disrupt the damage of this emotionally violent legacy. Dr. King would be proud that we (environmentalists of African descent) are finding ways to move from “chaos to community.” I look forward to extending the STRANGE FRUIT community conversation across the nation through an upcoming Urban Wilderness event. I look forward to seeing you again and hiking with you in your part of the wild country!


  4. I am a white woman who has worked all life for racial and societal justice and equality. This has meant the realization that the African-American people know much more than I do about racism! My knowledge has been like the surface of a lake, while African Americans know what all the water is like, down to the bottom. Still, I want to meet them, and Asian Americans and all persons in our lovely Wilderness places–and I want us ALL to be equally safe and free to enjoy them.

  5. Good comments. I’ve worked as an environmental educator with children from all backgrounds, and I know that all of them are fascinated by wild places. Best wishes for your efforts to help all people thrive in nature.

  6. Mother Nature is good to all of us, regardless of ethnicity. And that’s the way we relate most happily and healthily to each other. We have plenty to beware of from anyone; thievery, trash littering, drug using and dealing, gun violence and other kinds both domestic and on the street, but we still will benefit by being welcoming to all.

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