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Women's History Month

'Never for a moment lacked a purpose'

Marian Wright Edelman, crusader for civil and children's rights

Marian Wright Edelman  

March 12, 2001
Web posted at: 1:51 PM EST (1851 GMT)

In this story:

A life spent fighting for justice

A focus on poverty, especially among children


Summary: The daughter of a reverend and an activist, Marian Wright Edelman has emerged from the small, segregated Southern town of Bennetsville, South Carolina, to become one of the nation's leaders in children's and civil rights. An NAACP lawyer in the 1960s and founder of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman has worked with some of the foremost political and public figures of the 20th century for various social causes.

(CNN Newsroom) -- Marian Wright was born the youngest of five children in the small Southern town of Bennetsville, South Carolina. Her father, the Rev. Arthur Jerome, was a Baptist preacher. Her mother, Maggie Leola Bowen Wright, was an activist at a time that women or African-Americans were not often or easily heard.

Both her parents, as well as her church's leaders and her teachers, were strong believers in Marian -- that she could go anywhere, do anything, regardless of the limits put on her as a young black female by segregation and prejudice.

A life full of accomplishments
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More than 61 years later, with multiple degrees, countless honors, several books and a long array of experiences to her credit, Marian Wright Edelman is very proud of where she's come from and what's she's done.

"I have always felt blessed to be born who I was, where I was, when I was and with the parents I had," she told CNN Newsroom.

Edelman has made it her lifelong mission to make lives better for people much like herself, when she was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. A prominent figure in the civil rights movement, former associate of Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and founder and president of the world-renowned Children's Defense Fund, Edelman has committed her life to civil and children's rights.

"As a black girl growing up in a small, segregated Southern town, I could never take anything for granted and never for a moment lacked a purpose worth fighting, living or dying for, or an opportunity to make a difference," Edelman said.

A life spent fighting for justice

Bennetsville, in the northeast part of South Carolina, was segregated much like many other small Southern towns in the middle of the century. Edelman couldn't go far without experiencing racial injustice during her childhood.

But the disadvantages didn't discourage Edelman - the important adults in her life wouldn't let them.

"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," she recalled. "My church leaders said it wasn't so. Teachers in the segregated schools said it wasn't.

"So I knew it was not so."

Edelman used education as her out, attending Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and studying abroad in Paris. She later graduated from Yale Law School, moving from the Ivy League campus in New Haven, Connecticut, to Jackson, Mississippi, the first black woman to pass that state's bar exam.

As director of an NAACP office in Jackson, Edelman witnessed the bravery and brutality of the civil rights movement firsthand.

"I was waiting and hungry to find a way to strike out against segregation," Edelman said. "You're terrified and do what you've got to do anyway."

A focus on poverty, especially among children

The Children's Defense Fund aims to improves the lives of young people throughout the country  

Edelman began tackling economic, in addition to racial, inequality while a lawyer in Mississippi. She soon distinguished herself as part of a program called Head Start, which provided health care, food and teaching to poor children.

"They're starving, they're starving," Edelman told a Senate subcommittee in 1967. "There is absolutely nothing for them to do. There is nowhere to go."

She invited Sen. Kennedy on a tour of impoverished areas of Mississippi, a visit she said "led to the dramatic expansion of child and family nutrition programs throughout the country."

Soon thereafter, Edelman moved to Washington to help organize the Poor People's March, at the urging of Kennedy and Dr. King. She remained in the nation's capitol, marrying Peter Edelman and later founding the Washington Research Project.

This organization spawned the Children's Defense Fund, one of the nation's premier advocacy groups for young people. As president, Edelman has pushed for a variety of reforms including disabled access to schools, affordable child care for millions and $48-billion legislation to create the Child Health Fund.

"There should be not one hungry child in America," she said. "There should be not one poor child in America. There need be no children in this world who die of poverty of hunger or sickness."

15 Americans awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
August 9, 2000
Children's Defense Fund says one in five American children poor
March 24, 2000
Report: Families, children swell ranks of homeless
November 20, 1999
Violence steals youth, children's advocate says
April 21, 1999
Everyone counts: It's Census Day in the U.S.
April 1, 2000

Children's Defense Fund
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Spelman College
Yale Law School

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