No voice has been as strong and persistent for the rights of children, especially children in poverty, as Marian Wright Edelman.
Marian Wright Edelman (b. 1939)
“The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children,” Marian Wright Edelman declared. She refined her passion and developed her activist skills in the Civil Rights Movement, then went on to found and lead the strongest organization for advocacy on behalf of children, The Children’s Defense Fund.
Marian Wright was born in South Carolina. Her father Arthur Wright was a Baptist preacher who taught her that Christianity demands a life of service. She would grow up to echo that value from her childhood: “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”
She attended Spellman College and quickly got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Getting arrested prompted Wright to go to Yale Law School, graduating in 1963. She became the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. Representing the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she defended civil rights activists during the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964, one of the key points of struggle in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. During her time in Mississippi she also organized a Head Start program in her community.
In 1968 Wright moved to Washington, D.C. to help organize and serve as legal counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign launch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before his death and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During an early visit by Robert Kennedy to the Mississippi Delta in 1967 she met Robert Edelman, an aide to Kennedy who taught law in Georgetown. They were married in July of 1968 and eventually had three children.
Wright Edelman then founded the Washington Research Project that became the parent body of the Children’s Defense Fund which she began in 1973. She said, “It was clear to me as a civil rights leader in the ‘60s that unless we put the social and economic underpinnings beneath the political and the civil rights, we wouldn’t go anywhere.” She saw children as the key, because children under five were the poorest age group in America, and poverty impacted their health, future opportunities, and even brain development. So justice demanded that these most vulnerable little ones would become the focus of advocacy. Under Wright Edelman’s direction the CDF became the leading national research and advocacy organization for children. They worked on government issues related to foster care, child nutrition programs, health care, child care, adoption, youth pregnancy prevention, pre-natal care, parental responsibility in teaching values, reducing gun violence, and protection for abused, homeless, and disabled children. In all these areas Wright Edelman struggled for adequate funding amid the various government priorities. She said, “We do not have a money problem in America. We have a values and priority problem.”
Marian Wright Edelman has addressed not only children’s concerns also the broader implications of poverty and social structures that deny justice and opportunity for people. In her speaking she makes a clarion call for more activism. “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back—but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.” “We must always refill and ensure there is a critical mass of leaders and activists committed to nonviolence and racial and economic justice who will keep seeding and building transforming movements.” “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
For her tireless advocacy for children and justice Marian Wright Edelman has received countless awards and honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
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