The year was 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated and riots had broken out all over the country. Twenty-nine year old Marian Wright Edelman went into schools to talk to children to tell them not to loot and risk their future by getting arrested. Edelman vividly recalled a little boy, about 11 or 12, who looked her straight in the eye and said “‘Lady, what future? Ain’t got no future. Ain’t got nothing to lose.’ I’ve been trying for the last 40 years to prove that boy’s truth wrong.”
As a Black child growing up in the segregated south, all the external messages told Edelman that she wasn’t valued by society. Those messages were countered by a strong sense of self-worth instilled by her parents, Reverend Arthur Jerome Wright and Maggie Leola Bowen Wright. “My mother and father always made me believe that I could be anything,” said Edelman. Indeed, it was that strong self confidence that led Edelman to go to Yale University and in 1963, become the first African-American woman to practice law in the state of Mississippi.
Edelman’s original plan was to go into the Foreign Service. “Law school never crossed my mind. I didn’t know any women who were lawyers. I don’t think I knew about Yale when I was growing up in a little town in North Carolina. My father believed that God ran a full employment economy and if you follow the need you would never lack for a purpose in life.”
In her senior year in college, Edelman became involved in the civil rights movement and the student sit-in protests. This involvement led her to volunteer at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the NAACP Edelman encountered many people who had never been able to get a lawyer, complaints about White lawyers who didn’t take Black civil right cases and poor people who couldn’t afford a lawyer. “I was just shocked and asked myself ‘Why in the world are you thinking about going to go into the Foreign Service when the real war is at home?’ I got very mad and enrolled in law school because that’s where the real need was,” said Edelman.
Edelman filed dozens of lawsuits in Mississippi courts on behalf of poor families. She became a prominent civil rights attorney.
Although she had been working on behalf of children and families years before, Edelman officially founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973. Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. 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.
“One major security issue facing this country is the failure to invest in its children. A majority of all children cannot read and write and compute at grade level. Who’s going to be our future work force? This is what’s going to topple us as a nation. It’s our moral Achilles’ heel, it’s our economic Achilles’ heel. I am more mission driven than I’ve ever been to say, ‘Wake up country!’ We can’t go backwards,” said Edelman.
Over the span of five decades, 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.
On Friday, December 4, Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund will receive the Inaugural James M Lawson, Jr. Humanitarian Award at Holman United Methodist Church’s 70th Anniversary Gala. The gala will take place at the Omni Hotel, 251 South Olive Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90012. A silent auction and cocktail hour will begin at 6:00 p.m. The dinner and program will begin at 7:00 p.m. Tickets and information are available at www.holmanumc.com\lawson, or call 323-731-7285.