Marian Wright Edelman
Civil rights attorney, advocate for children and families, founder of Children’s Defense Fund
January 5, 2022
Marian Wright Edelman was born June 6, 1939 in Bennettsville, South Carolina to Arthur Jerome Wright, a Baptist minister, and Maggie Leola Bowen Wright, a church woman and activist. Like many other rural southern towns, Bennettsville was segregated, and racial injustice was an everyday reality. In 2001, Edelman recalled
Despite those external messages from white segregationists and from the law and the political system that said that I, as a little black girl, wasn’t worth much, my parents said it wasn’t so. My church leaders said it wasn’t so. Teachers in the segregated schools said it wasn’t. So I knew it was not so. (Bakhtiar, 2001)
Taking that support to heart, Wright attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga. where she participated in the Civil Rights movement. She received her B.A. in 1960. In a 1988 interview, she recounted going to volunteer at the local NAACP. There, she saw that many more complaints had come in from poor Blacks than there were lawyers and money to respond to. At that time, Wright had intended to study Russian literature, but seeing the need decided to go to law school. As she said, “I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to stay in the South. And although I absolutely hated law school; hate the law; it was clear that what was needed was lawyers.” Wright received her LL. B. from Yale University Law School in 1963.
The following year, Wright returned to the South where she became the first African American woman to pass the bar in Mississippi. From 1964 to 1968 she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi. She worked as a civil rights lawyer and activist, and as an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (National Park Service International Civil Rights Walk of Fame).
In March 1967, as most of the nation’s War on Poverty legislation was about to expire, Marian Wright testified before the Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. During this time, she persuaded four senators on the nine-member subcommittee to visit Mississippi and see for themselves the extreme poverty and starvation there. Extensive media coverage of the Mississippi Delta tour revealed the impoverished conditions to the American people and raised public awareness of hunger.
The four Senators (Joseph S. Clark, Robert Kennedy, Jacob Javits, and George Murphy) were so moved by conditions in Mississippi that they returned to Washington to pass legislation. In July, Wright again testified before the Subcommittee. The report of the subcommittee meetings mentions a Department of Agriculture study of 500 representative poor families in Mississippi’s Washington and Sunflower counties. Preliminary results of the study indicated that 60 per cent of the families received less than two-thirds of the minimum dietary allowances recommended by the National Research Council. The study also reported that the value of all food consumed by the average individual was only $4 per week, or about 57 cents per day—including the value of any free food received from the Federal Government. At this time Mississippi had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. (Senate. Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, 1967, 282)
The following year, 1968, was tumultuous. Heavy military and civilian casualties in the Vietnam War brought protests and decreasing public support. Billions of dollars in government spending went towards the war effort rather than domestic programs. In 1968, Marian Wright moved to Washington, D. C. as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign that King was organizing. (National Park Service International Civil Rights Walk of Fame) Then, on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Two months later, on June 6, Robert F. Kennedy was also assassinated.
During the Mississippi Delta tour, Marian Wright had met and worked with Peter Edelman, a legislative aide to Senator Kennedy. In July 1968 Marian Wright and Peter Edelman married–the third interracial couple to be married in Virginia, one year after the state’s antimiscegenation law was struck down. (Robertson, 1968).
In 1969, Marian Wright Edelman continued her work, founding the Washington Research Project of the Southern Center for Public Policy. That group monitored federal programs for low-income families. Then in 1973, she founded and became president of the organization most closely associated with her name, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the CDF is a strong and vital non-profit advocacy and research center for children’s issues. The organization provides a voice for all children, focusing on issues of child poverty, quality education and healthcare, the needs of children of color and children with disabilities. The CDF also advocates for children’s spiritual health, character and leadership development, and interracial and interfaith dialogue about children’s issues (Children’s Defense Fund website). The CDF’s first legislative success was passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1975. Prior to the EHA, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities.
Marian Wright Edelman has been often recognized and celebrated for her talents and tireless advocacy on behalf of children and families. In 1971 Edelman became the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation, serving from 1971 to 1977. Edelman served on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College, which she chaired from 1976 to 1987.
Edelman received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1985. In 2000, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings. The American Bar Association honored her with the Thurgood Marshall Award, which recognizes similar long-term contributions by other members of the legal profession to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights in the United States (American Bar Association Civil Rights and Social Justice website)
In 2020, after 45 years of leadership, Edelman became president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund. She continues to write and advocate for children and families, and her weekly Child Watch column may be found through the Children’s Defense Fund website.
Selected writings by Marian Wright Edelman
“Winson and Dovie Hudson’s Dream.” Harvard Educational Review (1975). 45(4): 417-450.
Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1987
The Measure of Our Success. A Letter to My Children and Yours. Boston: Beacon Press. 1992.
Guide My Feet. Prayers and Meditations on Loving and Working for Children. Boston: Beacon Press. 1995.
Stand for Children. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 1998
Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors. Boston: Beacon Press. 1999.
I’m Your Child, God: Prayers for Children and Teenagers. New York: Hyperion. 2002.
I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children. New York: HarperCollins. 2005.
The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small. Charting a Course for the Next Generation. New York: Hyperion. 2008.
American Bar Association (2020). Civil Rights and Social Justice Group. Thurgood Marshall Award. About the 2020 Recipient – Honoring Marian Wright Edelman.
Bakhtiar, R. (March 12, 2001). ‘Never for a moment lacked a purpose’ Marian Wright Edelman, crusader for civil and children’s rights. CNN Newsroom. CNNfyi.com
Children’s Defense Fund. Our Mission.
Children’s Defense Fund. Leadership and Staff. Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President Emerita.
1967 – Robert F. Kennedy’s Visit to the MS Delta (2015). Jim Lucas Photography.
Marian Wright Edelman. Children’s Rights Leader. Class of 1985. MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program.
Marian Wright Edelman. Feb. 10, 2015. South Carolina ETV – public educational broadcasting network
Robertson, N. (July 15 1968). Aides to Robert Kennedy and Dr. King Are Married in a Virginia Ceremony. The New York Times, 23.
United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty. (1967). Hunger and malnutrition in America: hearings before the Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, Ninetieth Congress, first session … July 11 and 12, 1967. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Office.
United States Department of Education (November 24, 2020). A History of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. U. S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act website
Yale Names 2 Women, One a Black Lawyer, to Board of Trustees (June 20, 1971). The New York Times, 39.