Vol. 46, Issue 3 ‣ profile
With a mandate in 1968 from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to bring national attention to the problems of injustice and poverty, a singularly courageous and dedicated woman has been pursuing that purpose ever since.
Named after the iconic singer and civil rights advocate Marian Anderson, Marian Wright Edelman grew up in the South and, early in her life, became involved in the movement for racial equality—a passion that led to her arrest in 1960 at an Atlanta, Georgia, sit-in. That event prompted her to study law.
Graduating from Yale Law School in 1963, Edelman became the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi State Bar. She headed the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid-1960s, then moved to Washington, D.C., at the request of Dr. King to coordinate the Poor People’s Campaign which, she says, “brought the plight of impoverished Americans to the doorsteps of the White House and Congress.”
Edelman established a public interest law firm known as the Washington Research Project, from which emerged the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973.
Under her leadership, the Children’s Defense Fund, a private, nonprofit organization, grew into a mighty human rights advocate; it has been called the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. Its mission: “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.”
One of its numerous programs, Freedom Schools, has reached many thousands of children across the nation, building self-esteem and helping them to fall in love with learning by bolstering reading skills. But with Marian Wright Edelman, helping children means nothing less than a full-scale assault, on all possible fronts.
At the Children’s Defense Fund’s 40th anniversary celebration, held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “There are dozens of laws on the books of the United States protecting children and supporting families that would not be there were it not for the Children’s Defense Fund.”
The numerous recognitions awarded Edelman for her work on behalf of children, as well as the broader spheres of human rights and social justice, include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian award—not to mention more than 100 honorary degrees.
But when asked which award or accolade she prizes the most, she responds, “The privilege to serve.”
Education is a consistent theme that weaves through Edelman’s work and her writings, which include nine books, such as the New York Times bestseller The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours, as well as a weekly column for The Huffington Post.
“Growing up in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in the segregated South,” she told Freedom in an interview, “there was one thing that my father continually stressed—education, education, education. My parents taught us that education and knowledge were an individual’s source of strength.”
In The Measure of Our Success, Edelman sets forth “Twenty-Five Lessons for Life,” conveying wisdom such as this excerpt from Lesson 14:
“Don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind or you’re going to get left behind. The world is changing like a kaleidoscope right before our eyes. …
“Daddy stretched us continuously and instilled a sense that all was possible with faith and hard work. He believed in learning by example, exposure, and osmosis. Any time a great Black man or woman came within 200 miles of our hometown, we children were piled in the car to hear them—singers Roland Hayes, Dorothy Maynor, Marian Anderson, and poet Langston Hughes. Great Black preachers and educators were special favorites. …
“Just as my parents and extended parents imbedded in us children a sense of possibility that transcended the artificial boundaries of our segregated existence, all of today’s parents and community leaders must try to give the young bulletins of the great world, through books and great people, so that all children are provided a sense of life that transcends the artificial boundaries of race, gender, class and things.”
The author and activist told Freedom: “In the last 40 years, we have made significant progress to improving the lives of our children—early childhood programs such as Head Start, child nutrition programs such as Women, Infants and Children—WIC—and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Now, we must check the forces that would turn back the clock on these hard-won successes.”
Don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind or you’re going to get left behind. The world is changing like a kaleidoscope right before our eyes.
The legacy of Dr. King is very much alive today, and Edelman lives and breathes that legacy. “With phrases like ‘judging by the content of my character, not the color my skin,’ Dr. King helped us reconceptualize a vision of what America could be. He had the courage not to strike back at brutality and reclaimed for us the potent weapon of nonviolence,” she says.
Having long been engaged on the front lines of the battle to improve conditions for others, Edelman has personally exercised that weapon, particularly on behalf of the most disadvantaged. In 1985, for example, she was among those arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington for protesting apartheid.
“Race and poverty still drive many of the socioeconomic disparities that exist in America today,” she says. “One example is the Cradle to Prison Pipeline that is made up of so many factors and funnels tens of thousands of children and teens into a life of arrest and incarceration.”
Asked if she ever gets discouraged at the magnitude of the obstacles she encounters, she responds: “I remember the words of Dr. King—‘If you cannot fly, run; if you cannot run, walk; if you cannot walk, crawl. But keep moving. Keep moving.’”
And keep moving she does—a lifelong champion of human rights who exemplifies in her words and actions what she said to this interviewer: “Children are our future … our nation’s best investment.”
Or, as she wrote in “A Letter to Dr. King,” on the 40th anniversary of his passing: “You blessed America with your rich faith, spiritual traditions, and prophetic preaching. … You left us your unrelenting commitment to justice for the poor and every one of God’s children. You showed us the way through your example and call for massive nonviolent action in the service of justice and peace. And you gave us your life.
“Thank you. We will carry on.”