Marian Wright Edelman
Founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Activist and humanitarian. A lifetime of speaking out on behalf of disadvantaged Americans, leaving no child behind.
Featured lessonA Legacy of Combating Urban Poverty
Marian Wright Edelman was born in 1939 in Bennettsville, South Carolina. She was the youngest of five children. It was the Jim Crow era South, with laws mandating every manner of exclusion for African Americans—always segregated and separated. There were drinking fountains labeled for “colored” people, restaurants could refuse service, and public buses had a section for whites in the front and a section for non-whites in the back.
When Edelman was 14, her dying father urged her to get an education. African American children were forced to attend different schools, and not surprisingly, these schools were often remote and run-down, with far less funding than white schools, which meant outdated textbooks and other limited resources. Edelman was undeterred. She completed high school, attended historically Black Spelman College in Mississippi, and visited the Sorbonne in France and the University of Geneva in Switzerland, neither of which were segregated.
Edelman returned from Europe with the drive to make a difference. She wanted to help end the system that had limited her opportunities in the U.S. She immediately joined the civil rights movement and decided that she could be more effective with a law degree. In 1963, she graduated from Yale Law School, became the first African American woman to pass the Mississippi Bar exam, and then joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a lawyer.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, state and local governments were forced to begin removing laws that discriminated based on race. Yet Edelman noticed that even though schools had become desegregated, the effects of years of segregation continued to disadvantage African American students, and they continued to fall behind their white peers. She was unwilling to let this stand. She fought for the funding of Head Start, a program designed to enrich the early experiences of poor, often African American, children and better prepare them for school. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968, as counsel for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. And she founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm.
Then, in 1974, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), which, to this day, continues to work to ensure a level playing field so that all children have what they need to thrive. Under her decades of leadership, the CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families, spearheading the fight for health, safety, education, overall well-being, and a fair start.
Marian Wright Edelman is our wake-up call and one of the great inspirational leaders of our time. Failing to take care of the most vulnerable among us is, quite simply, not an option.
“I cannot preach like Dr. King or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou. … I don’t have Harriet Tubman’s courage or Eleanor Roosevelt’s political skill. … I wish I was holy like Archbishop Tutu, or forgiving like President Mandela, or disciplined like Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not, but I care, and each of us can stand and be willing to serve with others for our children.”
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