Marian Wright Edelman, Founder, Children's Defense Fund
Marian Wright Edelman on being a black female lawyer Mississippi in the height of the Civil Rights Movement and dedicating her life to improving the life chances of America's children.
Founder, Children's Defense Fund
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."
- Was pretty clear in 1966-67 that you had to address the social and economic problems if the political and civil rights were going to have meaning. And Robert Kennedy and Joe Clark and others took on the hunger issue, and I would stay in touch with Robert Kennedy all during that period. And on my way back after a visit to Washington, I stopped in, as I always did, to see him. And Robert Kennedy told me, after he asked me how things were going in Mississippi, I was horrified by how slow everything was, and how little progress.
And by this time, the country was preoccupied with the Vietnam War, and the money was going there. Johnson was preoccupied, and so people were forgetting what was going on in these poor communities across the country. And I shared my frustration with Robert Kennedy and told him I was going to see Dr. King on the way back to Jackson. And he said, "Tell them to bring the poor to Washington."
And he was, by this time, running for president with the Democratic nomination. And we needed to let the people see the poor, see their-- hear their needs. And so I was the transmitter of this message. And Dr. King had a very, very modest office in Atlanta. And he was sitting by himself, always, constantly at the end, trying to figure out what is the next step to take. And he was often depressed about what to do, was depressed about the war. He saw the poverty was around him. He had helped us very much in the refunding battle over our Headstart program.
And when I told him what Robert Kennedy had said, to bring the poor to Washington, his face lit up. And he, what do you say, it made me think that I was an angel delivering a message. And he went home and told Coretta that, you know, this was the right thing to do. His staff didn't like it a whole lot and there was a big split about whether the CLC, his organization, should be focused on ending the war, or whether it should be on the war on poverty.
And obviously, he chose the war on poverty, but it was so difficult for him with internal dissension. His last Sunday sermon title, which he had called in on the day of his assassination to his mother in Memphis, he told her he was going to preach on why America may go to hell the next summer, Sunday. It was again, if we don't share our richness, the blessings of our rich, our wealth, with all those who need the basic necessities of life, we're going to go to hell. And he called for this Poor People's Campaign at a time when there were 11 million poor children.
Gosh, if he were living today, when we've got 15.5 million poor children, I have no doubt that he'd be out here trying to call for, and leading a poor People's Campaign.