Our planet … is a mysterious orb of mind and spirit, a world of hope and love - but, unfortunately, a world of clashing thoughts and feelings. … If our world is to survive and find its destiny, new ways of achieving harmony must be found. - John McConnell, "Minute for Peace" speech to National Education Association, 29 June 1965
The planet belongs to us - all of us. We have spiritual and material rights and responsibilities during our journey here. - Definition of World Equality, Inc., an organization created by John McConnell in 1969
This is for young and old who care about the Earth, its air, water, land and living things. We must change the attitudes and actions now destroying the Earth into those that will heal and build our planet. - John McConnell, speech, 1974
Flatland vision is caused by closing one eye - the eye of the heart. If we will open it and look at the whole world - with full vision - we will see new depths of love and new promises of peace. - John McConnell, "Flatland" essay, 1975
Who 'owns' the sea? You do! And your property is being vandalized, stolen, destroyed. What are you doing about it? - John McConnell, "Who Owns the Sea?" speech, 1975
John McConnell at the United Nations
John McConnell was active throughout his life, but his greatest accomplishments occurred in association with the United Nations. His influence there began in the late 1960s with Secretary-General U Thant with whom he often shared conversation. His influence continued into the 1970's with the next Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Secretaries-General Thant and Waldheim rang the Peace Bell at the United Nations for the Earth Day celebrations at the UN in 1971 and 1972, marking the first and second anniversaries of the original Earth Day on 21 March 1970. In 1971, Waldheim's ringing of the Peace Bell coincided with a special, 12-hour, commercial-free environmental broadcast, for which John was responsible, on television flagship station WOR-TV in New York and dozens of other affiliated stations around the nation. Thanks to the work of the Earth Society Foundation, a non-governmental organization that John founded with the help of anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1976, those Earth Day celebrations on the vernal equinox have continued every year since. John's friends and associates described him as "audacious, yet respectful" in his approach to the UN's great leaders. Under-Secretary-General Robert Miller wrote, "John McConnell was well known at the United Nations as someone courageous with ideas, a diplomat for Earth. And he never gave up." While not wealthy and working as a self-employed advocate of Earth, John McConnell still found the means, often through donations from those who believed in his enthusiasm and message, to attend some of the UN's greatest international conferences in Stockholm, Geneva, Vienna and Rio de Janeiro.
John and Anna McConnell today
Today, John McConnell is well into his 90s. His wife, Anna, is approaching 80. They were married on Christmas Day, 1968. And while John traveled the country extensively as a youth and the couple lived most of their married lives in Brooklyn, New York, they now reside in a humble senior citizen residence near their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in Denver, Colorado.
In Pursuit of Justice
John McConnell was born in 1915 in Davis City, Iowa. He is the eldest of six children of J.S. and Hattie McConnell. J.S. and Hattie were evangelists who traveled the country in a converted van in which they and their children cooked, ate and slept. J.S. and Hattie were among the founding members of the Assemblies of God church in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914. As a boy, John had very little formal education, but he taught himself to read in various public libraries. And he had the rare education of meeting people from southern California to Oregon and Washington, across the Great Plains and Great Lakes States to New York, and south to Alabama, George and Florida. Along the way, he observed and noted numerous ethnicities, religious beliefs, occupations and life styles. By participating as a singer and musician in tent revivals across the land, John and his siblings appeared with some of the greatest evangelists and performers of that era, including the Rev. Lincoln E. Caswell who also impersonated Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Joseph H. Braun, and the Tindley Seven gospel ensemble, which included sons of Charles Albert Tindley, a former slave renowned as the father of gospel music.
Care of Earth
John McConnell's gift as a visionary revealed itself in the 1930's when he and a chemist partner, Albert Nobell, converted discarded walnut shells into plastic, a biomass product long before that term came into vogue.
Passion for Peace
Like his father, John McConnell believed that it was wrong for Christians to participate in war. Yet, wanting to exhibit his patriotism, John served in the Merchant Marine in the early 1940s, during World War II, and conducted ministerial services aboard the ships he sailed. But when drafted into the Army, he refused to participate in rifle practice, seeing in the target the image of Christ. For this, he was sentenced to the stockade. His continued verbal protests against the military and war while in the Army landed him in solitary confinement where his hair turned prematurely white. Going AWOL, John and his first wife, Mary Lou, sailed from Florida to Roatan, British Honduras, where they worked as missionaries among Central American peasants while under observation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Telegrams from FBI agents to J. Edgar Hoover led the noted Bureau chief to declare that John and Mary were "not engaged in subversive activities."
Star of Hope
When Russia launched its first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, John owned a weekly newspaper in North Carolina. And while the majority of U.S. citizens felt shame that Russia had "won the Space Race," John was among an influential minority of Americans who believed that the Soviet Union should be complimented. He wrote an editorial in which he advocated that the U.S. and the USSR work together to jointly launch a satellite with a solar-powered light and reflective surface that would be visible from Earth. John believed that this satellite would be a "Star of Hope" for all humanity, signaling cooperation, rather than competition, in space. Within a week, John's editorial was reprinted in major daily newspapers across the nation, and his concept was espoused by leading government advisors, including the noted Dr. S. Fred Singer, director of the Center for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Maryland and advisor to President Dwight Eisenhower. The Star of Hope satellite was never launched, per se. Yet, in 1962, the U.S. government did begin to hint at the fiscal benefits of joint space exploration with other countries. With the launching of the Mir Space Station, which was populated by U.S. astronauts, Russian cosmonauts, and space scientists from other nations, in the 1980s, John's vision, to some extent, became a reality.
Meals for Millions
In the early 1960s, John joined and became a director in San Francisco for a major campaign to feed refugees who had fled from Hong Kong to find homes in the City by the Bay. A photograph of himself with President Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmie Tom, a second-grade student in San Francisco's Chinatown, is among John McConnell's prized possessions. In that photo, John looks on as President Eisenhower places currency in a "share-bank," which was a small milk carton converted into a money bank for the Meals for Millions campaign.
Minute for Peace
At the same time, John McConnell envisioned that peace on Earth could be realized if enough people would devote just one minute three times a day to silent thoughts of peace. He coined this concept "Minute for Peace," and he enlisted friends in the national broadcasting industry to promote the idea. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, the nation entered a 30-day Period of Mourning. At noon on December 22, dozens of radio and television stations across the nation broadcast one minute of silence, a Minute for Peace, and John McConnell was the impetus for that phenomenon.
Anna, John Paul and Christa Marie
The tall and handsome John McConnell and the petite and lovely Anna Marie Zacharias met fortuitously at a prayer meeting at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, New York in 1965. Anna had sung professionally in opera as a younger woman but gave up that career when called by the Lord into education. At the time they met, Anna was the principal and kindergarten teacher at St. Mark's elementary school, and John had traveled from California to promote and be responsible for San Francisco's Minute for Peace exhibit at the New York World's Fair. John attended the prayer meeting at the suggestion of a Lutheran minister who thought St. Mark's might be a speaking venue for him. John and Anna dated for two years before marrying on Christmas Day, 1967. Their "dates" usually consisted of attending diplomatic-type meetings that John arranged or quiet meals that Anna prepared in her apartment. She expressed delight at John's great ability to sing and play numerous religious songs on her piano. Anna gave birth to two children: John Paul, who had Down Syndrome and died at age 14 months, and Christa Marie who is a singer and musician and is married to Garin Paul Mason. Christa and Garin have two children: Hannah Rose and Bethany Anne. Throughout most of their marriage, Anna continued teaching within the Lutheran School system, earning a meager wage typical of parochial school teachers. At home, she supported John's numerous ventures, providing much needed secretarial support and a domestic foundation. She also accompanied John on his travels, when possible. She is the principal organizers of his numerous essays and correspondence and is primarily responsible for the donation of their historical documents to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection archives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Today, John and Anna live in a modest retirement village in Denver, Colorado, near their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
When I went into Lutheran school teaching, I knew I would never earn the money of a public school teacher. But when we do the work of the Lord, we're not going to have the money of the world.- Anna McConnell, 2004, reflecting on her life
Seeking a symbol through which all people of the world could find hope, John McConnell created the Earth Flag in 1969. The first Earth Flag was a two-color silkscreen with white to represent clouds and blue to represent oceans. Purposefully, there were no land masses to represent territory, boundaries and borders. Now adorned with a full-color photograph of Earth, taken from outer space, the Earth Flag is still the only flag for all people. The Earth Flag sold through www.earthflag.net is the only "Authentic Earth Flag" with a direct link to John and Anna McConnell
World Equality, Inc. (WE) was the first formal social justice organization that John McConnell formed, doing so in 1969 as an entity to sell and promote Earth Flags. John penned slogans based on the WE name: "WE can make Earth a beautiful home for all mankind." Through WE, Inc., John published his long-held philosophy of "come together where we agree while leaving room for our differences" then simplified that to "unity in diversity," a visionary statement that would later gain buzzword status among corporate and organizational consultants.
Earth Day on the Vernal Equinox
John McConnell conceived the idea of Earth Day in 1968. After much deliberation, he chose the vernal equinox, March 20 or 21, one of only two days each year when the sun is shared equally between people of the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Calling Earth Day "nature's global holiday," John announced the event at a large United Nations conference in San Francisco in late November 1969.
Earth Day is Nature's Day. A day of drama, dreams and dedication to the restoration, renewal and improvement of Earth's natural beauty and bounty. - John McConnell, "Celebrate Earth Day" speech at United Nations, 20 March 1991
At the same time, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had conceived and was promoting an Environmental Teach-In, patterned after the anti-Vietnam War protests that were popular on college campuses. Nelson's event was to be held on April 22 and the message was to focus on pollution and environmental degradation within the United States. Attendance records show that, when John McConnell announced Earth Day at the UN conference, some of Senator Nelson's student aides, his colleague Senator Paul McCloskey, and possibly Nelson himself were in the audience. John vividly recalls that two of Nelson's aides approached him and asked him to join the Environmental Teach-In campaign, saying they really liked the Earth Day name. John declined, of course, citing the global spiritual significance of having Earth Day on the equinox. Six weeks later, Nelson's Environmental Teach-In organization ran full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post that proclaimed, "April 22. Earth Day." Having two Earth Days caused much consternation within John. He and his colleagues attempted on several occasions, starting in 1970 and extending into the 1990s, to reach a settlement with Senator Nelson and his young protégé Denis Hayes. Correspondence from Nelson and Hayes denied wrongdoing toward John McConnell and disavowed any previous knowledge of John and his plans for Earth Day on the vernal equinox. Having two Earth Days also caused much confusion within the U.S. government. President Richard Nixon proclaimed Earth Day to be April 22 in 1971 and 1972. President Gerald Ford proclaimed Earth Day to be March 21 in 1975. And Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush proclaimed for April 22 in 1977, 1980 and 1990. An official copy of Carters' proclamation was sent erroneously to John McConnell. The U.S. Congress adopted resolutions for March 21 in 1971 and 1975, and for an Earth Week from April 9 to 15 in 1973. All three of these resolutions contained identical language - except for the date. Forty-five state governors and hundreds of mayors signed Earth Day proclamations for one day or the other, most of them for April 22, in the early 1970s. In 1973, Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr., of West Virginia wrote to his fellow governors, asking them to observe "the first day of spring as Earth Day." And Michigan Governor William Milliken expressed his desire "for coordination and consistency in our observations of Earth Day," noting that he had been asked "to declare three different dates as Earth Day or Earth Week by differing organizations." History notes that Senator Nelson's forces had the political clout and the public relations infrastructure to eventually win the Earth Day popularity race. And when Gaylord Nelson died on 2 July 2005, obituaries across the nation unanimously saluted him as the founder of Earth Day. Yet, John McConnell is the spirit and inspiration behind the Earth Day concept as a day of global significance. And while John, himself, and some of his supporters sought compromise reconciliation, he steadfastly maintained "April 22 is NOT Earth Day." Testimony to that statement is a tradition for an Earth Day celebration at the United Nations, begun in 1971, and held each year since on the vernal equinox. The ceremony, which featured Secretary-General U Thant that first year, includes the ringing of the UN Peace Bell. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim rang the Peace Bell in 1972 in conjunction with a 12-hour environmental special broadcast on WOR-TV and its affiliate stations that year. Bell ringers since have included other UN officials and ambassadors, including long-time Under-Secretary-General Robert Muller, Nobel Peace Laureates, priests and rabbis and ministers and healers, government officials, children of Israel and Palestine, folk singer Pete Seeger and anthropologist Margaret Mead. Starting in 1973, the Peace Bell was rung at the moment of equipoise in the U.S. Eastern Time Zone. Anna McConnell bore that honor at 3:03 a.m. on 20 March 1996 when the scheduled honoree was told, incorrectly, by UN security personnel that the event had been cancelled due to a tremendous rain storm. John McConnell rang the Peace Bell for the first time 20 March 2004 at 1:49 a.m., exactly two years after the United States' attack on Iraq. One day shy of his 89th birthday and with dramatic eloquence, he stated to the modest number of people there, "We've got to kill our terrible addiction to war. We ought to make friends, and not skeletons, of our enemies."
Earth Day Proclamation
A cornerstone in John McConnell's outspoken drive for peace is his Earth Day Proclamation, which he wrote in June 1970. Penned in beautiful calligraphy, John espoused that each signer of the Proclamation:
- Peacefully end the scourge of war
- Provide an opportunity for children of the disinherited poor to obtain their rightful inheritance in the Earth
- Redirect the energies of industry and society from progress through products to progress through harmony with Earth's natural systems for improving the quality of life
Then, in the early 1970s and again in the 1990s, he obtained signatures from thirty-six of the highest, most renowned personages of the globe, including Arvid M. Pardo, Margaret Mead, Eugene McCarthy, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, U Thant, Mark Hatfield, Lubos Kohoutek, Buckminster Fuller, John Denver, Isaac Asimov, Anatoly Berezovoi, Oscar Arias, Carlos Salinas, Yassir Arafat, Yehudi Menuhin, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1971, while sitting in a Texas restaurant, John McConnell conceived the Earth Trustee concept. Writing on his placemat, he identified ways in which individuals, cities, colleges, universities and other entities would determine the best manner to better preserve Earth.
Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth's natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth's people and for its creatures great and small.- John McConnell, Earth Trustee Challenge, early 1970s
Earth Society Foundation
In 1973, John McConnell founded the Earth Society to help promote the Earth Flag, Earth Day and the Earth Trustee Agenda, especially at the United Nations. This organization grew out of an informal meeting between John and other interested parties at a UN Conference of the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972. With the help of John's good friend, anthropologist Margaret Mead, this entity evolved into a UN non-governmental organization, the Earth Society Foundation, in 1976. Starting in 1990, the Earth Society Foundation began to grant Earth Trustee Environmental Awards. U.S. Vice President Al Gore was among the first recipients for his book, Earth in the Balance. Other recipients ranged from Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala to human rights activist Bianca Jagger, from Greenpeace International to the American Chestnut Foundation and the Robin Hood Oak Society, from peace and nuclear disarmament activists to explorers, journalists, marine geologists, economists and politicians. Later awards went to the Nobel Committee and Nobel Foundation, Nobel Peace Laureates Jose Ramos Horta of East Timor and Wangari Maathai of Kenya, and UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.
Ever seeking publicity and audiences for his vision of Earth appreciation, John McConnell seized such an opportunity in the winter of 1973 and 1974. Working in conjunction with New York's South Street Seaport Museum, John booked group passage for himself, Anna, and many others on the luxury passenger liner, Queen Elizabeth 2. The purpose was to view the passing of Comet Kohoutek in the Atlantic Ocean. The first cruise was for three days and went a few hundred miles east of New York's bright city lights. The second cruise lasted two weeks and went to Venezuela, the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Florida. John arranged for docents, presenters and entertainers, including Dr. Lubos Kohoutek, the astronomer who discovered the comet; numerous other scientists, professors and astronomers from NASA as well as planetariums and observatories; astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin; astrophysicist and astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan; singer Burl Ives; pianist Deirdre O'Donahue; and Robert Mason, inventor of the Moog synthesizer.
Earth Rights and Responsibilities
In 1968, John McConnell wrote his "Planetary Inheritance Declaration," a profound document "concerning the rights and responsibilities of all people with respect to Earth's land, sea, minerals, oil and other natural resources." Then he set the concept aside, giving priority to the Earth Flag, Earth Day, WE, Inc., and his love for Anna and their two young children, John Paul and Christa Marie. Yet, he included the concepts from his Declaration in various other writings and speeches, including one at the United Nations in 1974 in which he outlined three global objectives for ecology, justice and love.
Ecology requires education and action that will convert our desire and our practice to the care of Earth … and the preservation and enhancement of its marvelous ecosystems. Justice involves equal individual rights to the use of Earth and its raw materials and equal responsibility for the care and preservation of Earth's natural bounty. Love relies upon encouragement and reward for the attributes and values and actions that … have nourished the great religions and all humanitarian endeavors - John McConnell, "Earth's Resurrection" speech at United Nations Church Center, Easter Sunday, 1974
Being globally conscious, John McConnell also turned his attention to the resources of the seas, on and below the surface. In 1974, he founded an organization called Sea Citizens in which he encouraged mutual non-ownership of the world's oceans and waterways. John took this action in conjunction with a major effort by the United Nations at that time, led by Arvid M. Pardo, the ambassador of Malta. Between 1956 and the early-1980s, the UN held three major Conferences on the Law of the Sea that finally resulted in a multi-lateral treaty, signed by 130 nations, which many participants fell short of accomplishing its original intentions. John admitted that a grassroots citizens' organization to protect the seas as an international commons was a formidable challenge. But he also espoused, "Yesterday's impossible stories are today's headlines: Man on the Moon, President Resigns."
Our planet is dying. The patient is weak, dirty, but still beautiful. Man has the scientific knowledge to save her. … Will he be moved by new appreciation and love to act in time? You will decide. - John McConnell, "Care and Management of Planet Earth," 1975
John McConnell's Earth Charter is perhaps his most outstanding contribution to the world as a visionary, yet for which he has received no noticeable credit. John crafted this document of nine succinct paragraphs twenty-one years prior to the beginning of the third millennium. Yet, in that document, John looked ahead to the 21st Century and the actions world citizens would need to take in order to successful reach that chronological milestone.
We who sign this pledge advocate that in the year 2000 a worldwide Bi-millennium Celebration be held, to be preceded by two decades of unparalleled thinking, perception, inspiration, love, planning and work for the achievement of a just and peaceful human society on Earth. - John McConnell, "Bi-millennium Celebration of Life," August 1979
The Earth Charter is a concise document that contains eleven brief principles under a subheadline of "A Key to Earth's Survival." John's friend and commercial artist, John Drysdale, arranged for it to be printed, in its entirety, on one side of a poster. John McConnell and John Drysdale then posted the Earth Charter at various locations within the United Nations. Nearly a decade later, the United Nations World Commission on the Environment and Development asked for creation of a charter that would set forth fundamental principles for sustainable development. That request initiated a ten-year process in which various UN committees, organizations outside the UN, and private citizens contributed input. Persons intimately involved with this project told John McConnell that his Earth Charter was the inspiration for this UN project. Yet, John was not invited to participate in the crafting process, nor was he credited as the inspirational source. The final UN product has been hailed as a universal declaration of human responsibilities, much in the same vein as John McConnell's Earth Charter, but the UN product, created by a committee, is much lengthier and more complex than John's original document.
John McConnell, Octogenarian
Into his 80s, John McConnell continued to be active, working four to eight hours a day on his computer and telephone, advocating his message to the world. Anna kept their tiny two-bedroom apartment - one room was John's office - neat and clean; she prepared delicious meals and insisted that her husband get out and walk at least one-quarter mile each day.
Dear Heavenly Father, we pray that, as I reach near the end of my sojourn here, whatever your mission for me is that I might clearly understand how I can make a difference in changing the global state of mind and providing a way to continue the human adventure. - John McConnell, prayer at the beginning of a research interview with his biographer, Robert Weir, 26 August 2004, seven months shy of his 90th birthday
And that is John McConnell. A man who, as his friend, Robert Muller, said "never gave up" on his courageous ideas as a diplomat for Earth. A man admired by pollster George Gallup, Jr., as "an idealist, a visionary, a peacemaker," a person "needed for today, for our future." A man about whom former U.S. ambassador John McDonald said is "totally dedicated and committed to the concept of peace building through the environment."