MAKERS Profile

Marian Edelman

Founder, Children's Defense Fund

In this video

Marian Wright Edelman on being a black female lawyer in Mississippi in the height of the Civil Rights Movement and dedicating her life to improving the life chances of America's children.

Marian Wright Edelman is a renowned activist who has been fighting for the rights of children for the last 40 years. Through the Children’s Defense Fund that she established in 1973, she has been a leading national voice for disadvantaged children and families. Edelman grew up in South Carolina, the youngest of five children of a Baptist preacher who taught her early on about the importance of serving others and pursuing an education. As a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, she became the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi bar in 1963. She began her legal career in the as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and served as the director of the Jackson, Mississippi office, defending her peers in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as helping to establish the local Head Start program.

In 1968, she moved to Washington, D.C. as counsel for the Poor People's March that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began organizing before his death. Out of her work on poverty with Dr. King, she formed the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), a non-profit child advocacy organization that has now worked for nearly 40 years to ensure a level playing field for all of America’s children.

Edelman has received over a hundred honorary degrees and many awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings which include: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours, and Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind."

More From Marian

The War at Home
Edelman explains why she went to law school instead of going into the foreign service.

Reaching for More Than Marriage
Edelman describes how her father taught her to aspire to more than just marriage.

Not Everyone's Parents
Edelman talks about the extraordinary example and expectations her parents set for her and her sister.

A Larger Purpose
Edelman only stuck out in law school because she saw how desperately her fellow civil rights workers in Mississippi needed legal defense.

A First in Mississippi
Making history as the first African-American woman to practice law in Mississippi was never what motivated Marian Wright Edelman.

Facing Down Racists
Edelman reflects on where she found the courage and determination to fight racial oppression in Mississippi, despite the immense danger.

A Healthy Child
Edelman discusses the difference in priority between black feminists and the mainstream, white women's movement.

The Worst Crisis Since Slavery
Edelman addresses the frightening statistics that face African-American children, particularly boys, today.

Losing Hope
After the progress of the 60s, Edelman explains how we've moved backwards in securing the life chances of children.

Children of God
Edelman reveals how her faith and religious upbringing informs her work with children and approach to building their self-esteem.

Defending Our Children
Edelman details the mission and imperative of the Children's Defense Fund.

Getting RFK to Take On Poverty
Edelman describes how she helped get Robert Kennedy to witness and then champion the needs of the nation's poor in the 1960s.