The daughter of a poor, black Baptist preacher, Marian Wright Edelman grew up in the racially segregated South. But she worked her way through college and law school and went to Washington, D.C., as counsel to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, Poor People's campaign. It was there, in 1973, that she founded the advocacy group called the Children's Defense Fund.
So unrelenting is Marian Wright Edelman's campaign on behalf of poor, sick, neglected, and abused children that she has been called America's mother. Not satisfied to speak on children's behalf before church and community groups, Edelman has walked the halls of Congress and state legislatures, lobbying for funds to provide better medical care, early schooling, and protection from gun violence for poor children.
Now 66, Edelman carries two searing images of her rural South Carolina hometown. One was of an ambulance driver who rushed to the scene of a terrible highway accident, but drove off when he discovered that the injured were black migrant workers.
The other image is of a painting, hanging in the vestibule of her father's church. It depicted, she recalls, "a very prominent white family, sitting at a table, with lots of food weighing down the table, but with hordes of skinny, emaciated people around that table. And the rich white people say, 'Shall we say grace?'"*
Marian Wright Edelman's own home was filled with love and lots of children, including four siblings and -- off and on -- 12 foster sisters and brothers.
"My daddy had holes in his shoes," she says. "But he was able to convey to me that I, a young black girl, could be and do anything, that race and gender are shadows, and that character, self-discipline, determination, attitude and service are the substance of life."
That service began in the even deeper and more segregated South, in Mississippi, where Marian Wright became the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. After her work with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Poor People's March brought her to Washington, she turned her attention to children -- in the hope that parents' universal love of their children could bridge the gaps between America's races and classes.
"I didn't set out to start a children's defense fund," Ms. Edelman says. "It never occurred to me that I'd go to law school. But I got mad one day when I saw that poor people didn't have lawyers during the sit-in movement, which I was participating in. And I wondered why I was thinking about going off to study 19th-century Russian literature. What would that do for anybody? So I just followed the need."
Ms. Edelman, who is married and the mother of three sons, is often asked what is wrong with today's seemingly aimless and wayward children. Adults are what's the matter, she replies. "Parents letting children raise themselves or be raised by television. Children being shaped by peers and gangs, instead of by parents and grandparents and kin. Children roaming the streets because there's nobody at home or paying enough attention. Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating. Adults telling children not to be violent, while marketing a culture that glorifies violence. What's wrong with our children? We're what's wrong with our children."
Taking questions recently after a speech at a downtown church in Washington, D.C., Marian Wright Edelman was confronted by a conservative parishioner. He asked her why the Children's Defense Fund puts so much emphasis on social programs, when it should be focusing on irresponsible parents who bear children out of wedlock and then neglect them.
"You can't teach what you don't know," she responded. "We do a lot to try to talk to young people in schools and everywhere we go about not having children until you're ready to support them for a lifetime. But we also recognize that in order to do that, you've got to put hope in place. You've got to put opportunity in place. It's one thing to judge people. It's another thing to help them."
Marian Wright Edelman says she speaks for children whose nightmares come from the daytime, who aren't spoiled by anybody, who go to bed hungry in our rich land and cry themselves to sleep.
Marian Wright Edelman's home county in South Carolina is no longer officially segregated by race. But she says economic hopelessness there keeps most poor, black people down. The largest employers in Marlboro County are a state prison and a federal prison. Our children, Ms. Edelman adds with a deep sigh, are their feeder system.
*See Print # 8 in the Library of Congress Online Exhibit Herblock's Gift