Edelman, Marian Wright


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Edelman, Marian Wright

During her career, Marian Wright Edelman has appeared in Mississippi jail cells, Capitol Hill offices, and on TV talk shows, with the same objective: to help poor or disenfranchised U.S. citizens. Best known as the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), Edelman is a lawyer, lobbyist, author, and mentor to former first lady, now U.S. senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Edelman began her career as a Civil Rights attorney in the Deep South during the 1960s. While working on voter registration campaigns—and keeping demonstrators out of jail—Edelman vowed to do something about the plight of children in the United States. Improving children's lives seemed like a logical starting point for improving all of society. By the mid-1990s, Edelman's influence extended from day care centers to the Oval Office as she helped shape the future for the youngest citizens of the United States.

Edelman was born June 6, 1939, in Bennettsville, a small, segregated town in South Carolina. Her father, Arthur Jerome Wright, was a Baptist minister, and her mother, Maggie Leola Wright, was the director of the Wright Home for the Aged. Named after singer Marian Anderson, Edelman recalls a childhood of hard work and high expectations. She was an outstanding student whose parents instilled in her a strong sense of purpose and social awareness. Edelman's parents extolled the virtues of self-reliance and personal initiative, and lived their own counsel when they established the Wright Home, the first African American residence for elderly people in South Carolina. Edelman's parents founded the nursing home because they saw a need and felt obliged to fill it. Given the example set by them, it is no surprise that Edelman chose a life of self-directed social activism.

After high school, Edelman attended well-respected Spelman College, in Atlanta. Edelman planned a career in the foreign service and took preparatory courses at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. After spending a summer in Moscow, Edelman returned to the United States for her senior year at Spelman. Before long, she was caught up in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. After a campus visit by martin luther king jr., and considerable soul-searching, Edelman dropped her plans for the foreign service and joined other African Americans in the struggle for equal rights.

To make herself more valuable to the movement, Edelman decided to attend law school. After earning a degree from Yale University Law School in 1963, she became counsel for the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In New York, Edelman received NAACP training in civil rights law for one year. She moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 and became the first African American woman ever admitted to the Mississippi bar. (At the time, Mississippi had a grand total of three African American lawyers.)

Edelman's first assignment was the Mississippi Summer Project. This was an African American voter registration drive conducted by volunteers and college students from the North. Edelman also served as the attorney for the Child Development Group of Mississippi, where one of her proudest accomplishments was helping to reinstate federal funding for Head Start, a successful program that encourages the intellectual and social development of poor, at-risk children.

When Senator robert f. kennedy toured Mississippi in 1967, Edelman showed him the wretched poverty endured by thousands of African American children. Many credit her with opening Kennedy's eyes to the reality of hunger in the United States.

In 1968, Edelman married Peter B. Edelman, a Harvard-trained lawyer who was Senator Kennedy's legislative assistant. The couple moved to Washington, D.C., where eventually they had three sons. Edelman hoped a move to the nation's capital would enable her to focus national attention on the poverty she witnessed in Mississippi.

Edelman's first job in Washington, D.C., was as congressional and federal agency liaison for the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. Also during 1968, Edelman founded the Washington Research Project, an advocacy and research group that lobbied Congress for an expansion in Head Start services. In 1971, Edelman and her family moved to Boston for her to complete a two-year stint as director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University. Her husband served as vice president of the University of Massachusetts at the same time. Upon their return to Washington, D.C., in 1973, Edelman created an offshoot of her Washington Research Project, which she called the Children's Defense Fund.

"We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee."
—Marian WRight Edelman

Edelman's CDF began as a small, nonprofit organization interested in children's issues and funded entirely by private foundation grants. In CDF's early days, Hillary Rodham Clinton worked as a staff attorney and later became a member of the CDF board of directors. In 1999, with a staff of 130 and a budget of $10 million, CDF had grown considerably in size and stature but remained committed to its original goal: providing hope and social change for the poor, neglected, and abused children in the United States. CDF conducts research, drafts legislation, lobbies, and provides educational support on issues affecting children. It has buttonholed elected officials on issues including childhood diseases and immunizations, homelessness, Child Abuse, education, and foster care. Edelman lobbied for a national Child Care bill, increases in Medicaid spending, and, of course, additional spending for her cherished Head Start programs.

Edelman's productivity and stamina are legendary. In addition to Lobbying, she gives an average of 50 speeches a year and has made frequent appearances on popular talk shows. Edelman has received more than 65 honorary degrees and awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the H. John Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, President bill clinton awarded Edelman the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

Edelman has also been a prolific writer; among her books are Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change (1987); The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (1992), which sold over 1.25 million copies and appeared on the best-seller list; a children's book titled Stand for Children (1998); and I'm Your Child, God: Prayers for Children and Teenagers (2002).

In 1996, Edelman founded Stand for Children, a grassroots organization that advocates for Children's Rights throughout the country with a focus on early childhood education, after-school programs, and health care. In 2000, the Children's Defense Fund took note of the fact that presidential candidate george w. bush had adopted the fund's slogan Leave No Child Behind for his campaign. In early 2003, Edelman accused the Bush administration of "waging a budget war against poor children" based on proposed tax cuts. The Children's Defense Fund later released a state-by-state report showing that states experiencing fiscal crisis were making cuts in vital child-care, early education, and after-school programs.

Further readings

Children's Defense Fund (CDF). 2003. "State Budget Cuts Put Children at Risk." Available online at <www.childrensdefense.org/release030313.php> (accessed July 2, 2003).

Igus, Toyomi, ed. 1991. Book of Black Heroes. Vol. 2: Great Women in the Struggle. New York: Scholastic.

Stand for Children Website. Available online at <www.stand.org> (accessed July 2, 2003).

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Edelman, Marian Wright I CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE: A Treasury To Inspire Our Children.