Name of Candidate: Marian Wright Edelman
Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Marian Wright Edelman is a lawyer, an educator, an activist, a reformer, and a children’s advocate.
Major achievements and Contributions
Marian Wright Edelman is a lifelong advocate for disadvantaged Americans and is the Founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), a non-profit child advocacy organization that has worked relentlessly for 35 years to ensure a level playing field for all children. CDF champions policies and programs that lift children out of poverty; protect them from abuse and neglect; and ensure their access to health care, quality education, and a moral and spiritual foundation. Supported by foundation and corporate grants and individual donations, CDF advocates nationwide on behalf of children to ensure children are always a priority. The Children's Defense Fund's Leave No Child Behind® mission is 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.
Edelman began her career in the mid-60s when, while working as director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education office in Jackson, Mississippi, she became the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She also became nationally recognized as an advocate for Head Start at this time. In l968, she moved to Washington, D.C., and subsequently became counsel for the Poor People's Campaign organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prior to his death. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children's Defense Fund, where she lobbied Congress for child and family nutrition programs and expanding Head Start. In 1973, the Washington Research Project became the Children’s Defense Fund, the United States’ leading advocacy group for children. As part of CDF, Edelman has also advocated pregnancy prevention, child care funding, health care funding, prenatal care, parental responsibility for education in values, reducing the violent images presented to children, and selective gun control in the wake of school shootings.
Edelman has served as director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University and is the first African American female on the board of Yale University. Edelman has written many articles and books, including the autobiographical New York Times bestseller, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours.
Mission and Goal Fit
Marian Wright Edelman gave a commencement speech to the graduating class of Tarbut V'Torah, a Jewish Community Day School, in Irvine, California at which she said The first lesson that I keep telling over and over again: There is no free lunch in life. Please don't feel entitled to anything you don't sweat and struggle for. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, reminded us that "many women may not get all they pay for in this world, but they will certainly pay for all they get." You've got to work your way up hard and continuously. And I know I don't have to say this: Don't be lazy, do your homework, pay attention to detail, take great care and pride in your work. Don't assume a door is closed; push on it. Don't assume if it was closed yesterday that it is closed today. Don't ever stop learning and improving your mind. If you do, you're going to be left behind. The second lesson is to assign yourself. My daddy couldn't stand to see us unengaged in constructive work. And he used to ask us when we had come home from school, "Did the teacher give you any homework?" If we'd say no, he'd say, "Well, assign yourself some." Don't wait around for your boss or your friends or teachers to direct you to do what you're able to figure out and do for yourself. And don't do just as little as you can to get by. And as you grow up and become citizens? Please don't be a political bystander and grumbler. I really hope every one of you will register to vote and vote every time. A democracy is not a spectator sport. And if you see a need, please don't ask, "Why somebody doesn't do something?" Ask "Why don't I do something?" Initiative and persistence are still the non-magic carpets to success for most of us.
Marian Wright Edelman is a lifelong advocate for disadvantaged Americans and under her leadership the CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. Marian Wright Edelman is oft-quoted, but is best known for saying “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”
Marian Wright Edelman received her BA in 1960 from Spelman College, an historic African-American institution for women in Atlanta, Georgia. While at college, she won a Merrill scholarship to study abroad. Her search for a broad international perspective took her to classes at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and with the help of a Lisle Fellowship, to Moscow just prior to starting her senior year.
She had planned on a career in the foreign service, but changed her plans as the events of the 1960s' civil rights movement occurred. Caught up in the African-American social consciousness of the times, she participated at sit-ins in Atlanta's City hall and was arrested. "Segregation was wrong, something to be fought against," she said. The experiences stimulated her to believe that she could contribute to social progress through the study of law. She entered Yale Law School on a scholarship after receiving her undergraduate degree. She did not love law but explained that she decided to study law "to be able to help black people, and the law seemed like a tool [I] needed." She received her JD from Yale Law School in 1963.
Marian Wright Edelman is quoted as saying “[w]hen I fight about what is going on in the neighborhood, or when I fight about what is happening to other people’s children, I’m doing that because I want to leave a community and a world that is better than the one I found.” Ms. Edelman has always been dedicated to the public interest from her time at the NAACP, as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign and when she founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Edelman also serves as a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation, the Association to Benefit Children, and City Lights School and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Personal, Moral Integrity
Marian Wright Edelman was born in Bennetsville, South Carolina, on June 6, 1939. She was the youngest of five children born to Arthur Jerome Wright and Maggie Leola (Bowen) Wright. She spent her early years in Bennettsville. It was, as she described it, a small-town, socially segregated childhood. She went to racially segregated public schools, but excelled academically.
Edelman's quest for political, economic, and social rights and justice has its beginnings in her childhood. The elder Wrights instilled in their children a strong sense of service to others by their words and deeds. Indeed, as Edelman wrote, "Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time." She was expected to help out with chores at the nearby Wright Home For the Aged, the first such institution for African-Americans in South Carolina, which her father founded and her mother ran. "The only time my father wouldn't give me a chore was when I was reading, so I read a lot," she said of those years. Edelman credits her father with instilling in her an obligation to right wrongs. When African Americans in Bennettsville were not allowed to enter city parks, her father built a park for African American children behind his church.
Recognition of Peers
Marian Wright Edelman has received many honorary degrees and 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 eight books: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change; The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children; Stand for Children; Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors; Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind; I'm Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children; and I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children.