Marian Wright Edelman (1939- )

Lawyer, activist, children’s advocate

Today we know her as the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund.  Her list of accomplishments started early; she was the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar Association.

Marian Wright Edelman was born in 1939 in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the youngest of five children.  Her father was a minister who believed strongly that education was the key to helping his children get ahead.  Edelman also credits her father with teaching her the importance of righting injustices.  When she was growing up in Bennettsville, African American children were not allowed to enter city parks.  Her father took land behind his church and built a park where African American children could play.

Edelman attended Spelman College, a liberal arts college for black women in Atlanta, Georgia.  She studied abroad during part of this time and intended to go into foreign service but when she returned to Spelman in 1959 she became active in the civil rights movement and decided that she could work most effectively if she had a law degree.  She attended Yale Law School and eventually moved to Jackson Mississippi where she became director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.  As noted, she was the first African American female admitted to the Mississippi Bar Association.

While in Mississippi she was a big advocate for family programs including Head Start. In 1968 she moved to Washington and became counsel to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and went on to found the Washington Project where she lobbied Congress for expanding programs for children and families.  In 1973 this program became what is now the Children’s Defense Fund, which describes itself as a voice for all the children of America, including the poor, minorities and disabled children; it also serves as an advocacy and research center for children’s issues. Edelman is still president of the organization.

She speaks frequently and has written numerous articles and books including the autobiographical The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours.  She has received numerous awards.

Edelman also writes regularly for The Huffington Post.  I have just signed up to get alerts whenever she posts, but if you have time to read only one of her postings, read the one she just wrote about Sojourner Truth on International Woman’s Day (3-8-11): “Ain’t I  a Woman?”  In it, she reminds us what we, at heart, already know: Women are often the ones who put in the serious work involved in bringing about social change.

And I close with a quote from Edelman: “Service is a rent you pay for living.”

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