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.