Happy Birthday

Marian Wright Edelman, Marian Edelman
Henry Griffin/AP

Happy Birthday, Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund Founder

June 06, 2010
by Jen O'Neill
Crowned by Harper’s Bazaar as “America’s Universal Mother,” and a winner of the Library of Congress Living Legend award, Marian Wright Edelman has dedicated her life to fighting for children’s rights. Working previously as a lawyer, educator, activist, lobbyist, reformer and children’s advocate, she’s earned the admiration of world leaders, politicians, parents, teachers and families as president of the Children's Defense Fund.

Marian Wright Edelman’s Early Days

Marian Wright Edelman was born on June 6, 1939, the youngest of five children to Maggie Bowen Wright and Baptist preacher, Arthur Wright. Her childhood was spent in Bennettsville, a small, socially segregated town in South Carolina, where she experienced racially divided public schools. Her father died when she was only 14, but marked her for life with his last words: “Don’t let anything get in the way of your education.”

She went on to study at Atlanta’s historic black women’s institution, Spelman College. Her academic success and initial desire to work in foreign service earned her a scholarship to study abroad. However, her plans were abandoned in the wake of the 1960’s civil rights movement.

The African-American social awareness of the era led Edelman into sit-ins, eventually motivating her to study law as an agent of social progress. She earned a scholarship at Yale Law School and later admitted that she had no aptitude or interest in law. She simply wanted “to be able to help black people, and the law seemed like a tool [I] needed,” she said.

Edelman’s Notable Accomplishments

In the 1960’s, fresh out of law school, Marian became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the Mississippi state bar. Edelman began her career in New York and later in Mississippi with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Her outlook on social issues was enhanced when she moved on to serve on Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, a mass demonstration for social and economic equity.

In 1973, Edelman founded the Washington Research Project, giving rise to the nation’s strongest voice for children and families, the Children’s Defense Fund. Through the CDF, Edelman called attention to many issues on the national agenda that had previously been ignored—such as foster care, teen pregnancy and childcare.

The Rest of the Story

Edelman has been honored with numerous awards and degrees throughout her career. She also has a center at San Francisco State University named after her, as well as an early childhood education program at Spelman that bears her name.

She continues her fight to improve the lives of all the nation's children, and admits that the work is sometimes tiring. “It's been hard all these years to get children to the top of the agenda, but today I can say that's where they are: at the top of the agenda,” Edelman said in a 1999 interview with The New Crisis.

“Yes, I believe people think of me as ‘strident’ and ‘uncompromising,’ but I'm willing to work with anybody. I'm just focused on my mission.”

Edelman writes a weekly column on fighting for children for Children’s Defense Fund.

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