Marian Wright Edelman was born in 1939 in Bennetsville, South Carolina. She briefly attended Spelman College, then studied abroad on a Merrill scholarship, and eventually traveled to the Soviet Union on a Lisle fellowship. In 1959 she returned to the U.S., took an active role in the civil-rights movement, and graduated from Yale Law School in 1963, becoming the first African-American woman ever admitted to the Mississippi bar. Edelman launched her post-academic career by working on a voter-registration project targeting Mississippi blacks, and later found employment with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In 1968 she married civil-rights attorney Peter Edelman.
Also in l968, Marian Wright Edelman moved to Washington, DC to serve as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King, Jr. had recently established. She subsequently founded the Washington Research Project, a public-interest law firm, and then spent two years as director of Harvard University‘s Center for Law and Education.
In 1972 Edelman, who served a stint on the trustees’ board of the Industrial Areas Foundation, delivered a eulogy at the funeral of its founder, the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky. Edelman viewed Alinsky as a “brilliant” man who “was working for underdogs” and “trying to empower communities.”
In 1973 Edelman established the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), in an effort to inject new energy into the civil-rights movement by emphasizing child welfare rather than racial justice. “When you talked about poor people or black people you faced a shrinking audience,” Edelman explains. “I got the idea that children might be a very effective way to broaden the base for change.” Hillary Rodham [Clinton] interned with the nascent CDF after graduating from law school in 1973, and Edelman became her trusted friend and mentor.
Lamenting that child poverty, teen pregnancy, academic failure, and criminal involvement afflict African-Americans at disproportionately high rates, Edelman, in her writings and speeches, rarely alludes to the fact that these problems are correlated much more highly with fatherlessness than with race. By Edelman’s calculus, they are largely the result of America’s intransigent racism. As she wrote in her 1987 book Families in Peril: “Children are poor because we have lost our moral bearings.”
A key barometer of those “moral bearings,” as Edelman defines them, is federal welfare spending. During the months prior to the August 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA)—a measure designed to move large numbers of people off the welfare rolls and into jobs—Edelman persistently warned that the bill, if enacted, would “codify a policy of national child abandonment” by “push[ing] millions of already poor children and families deeper into poverty.” She declared, further, that PRWORA represented the “biggest betrayal of children” she had ever witnessed. In an effort to spark public opposition to the bill, Edelman organized a June 1, 1996 “Stand for Children” March on Washington, which drew 300,000 people. Also in 1996, Edelman proposed, as an alternative to welfare reform, a government guarantee of full employment, socialized medicine, and federally funded babysitters: “Let’s guarantee a job. Let’s guarantee health care and children care [sic]. Let’s turn this welfare repeal into real welfare reform.”
When President Bill Clinton ultimately signed PRWORA into law, Edelman called it a “moment of shame.”1 But none of Edelman’s alarmist predictions about the consequences of welfare reform came to pass. For details of the legislation’s actual effects, click here.
A strong critic of what she considers America’s inherent and pervasive bigotry, Edelman blames white racism and white neglect for the decline of the nation’s inner-city schools during the decades since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. “The strong black traditions of family and hunger for education,” she said in 2004, “have been undermined by white resistance to Brown, and [by] our nation’s choices not to invest adequately in quality public schools for all children.”
In her 2005 book Social Injustice and Public Health, Edelman emphasizes her desire to “address the root causes of social injustice,” which she identifies as: “widening gaps between rich and poor, the unequal distribution of resources within our society, discrimination, and the disenfranchisement of individuals and groups from the political process.”
Edelman today is a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation and the Association to Benefit Children; 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; and a founding sponsor of The American Prospect. She has received more than 100 honorary degrees, along with a host of awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award (administered by the Heinz Family Foundation), the MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award.
For additional information on Marian Wright Edelman, click here.