Marian Wright Edelman

Social Activist, Founder of the Children's Defense Fund
Birthplace: Bennettsville, SC
Education: Spelman College, Yale Law School

"The legacy I want to leave is a child-care system that says that no kid is going to be left alone or left unsafe."
-Marian Wright Edelman I Dream a World, 1989

Marian Wright Edelman has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for most of her life. She grew up in a racially segregated society; however, her parents taught Marian and her siblings (including twelve foster children) that neither poverty nor racism were insurmountable obstacles. She recalled, "Service was as much a part of my upbringing as eating breakfast and going to school. It was clear that this was the purpose of life."

Marian attended Spelman College, the first college for black women in the country. While working for the Atlanta office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she realized the great need for civil rights lawyers and decided to become an attorney. Marian graduated from Yale Law School in 1963 and, in 1965, she became the first African-American woman to pass the bar in Mississippi.

Ms. Edelmen served as the Director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University. She realized that she had to go to Washington to defend the interests of the poor, especially children. "I've been struck by the upside-down priorities of the juvenile justice system. We are willing to spend the least amount of money to keep a kid at home, more to put him in a foster home, and the most to institutionalize him," she said. "Every thirty-five seconds, an infant is born into poverty." In 1973, she began the non-profit Children's Defense Fund (CDF). Under her leadership, CDF has become a strong national voice for children. CDF secured the 1990 Act for Better Child Care, resulting in over $3 billion in funds dedicated to improving day-care facilities and other programs to help poor children. Edelman continues to espouse the CDF's mission to "Leave No Child Behind" as she works on behalf of more than 14 million American children living in poverty.

Ms. Edelman's awards include the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, the Ella J. Baker Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellow and served on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College. She has written many articles and books, including the autobiographical The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (No. 1 New York Times best-seller).

Related Resources

Selected Works by Marian Wright Edelman
The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours
Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors
Stand for Children
Guide My Feet: Prayers and Meditations for Our Children

Black History Month  Return to the Encyclopedia
of Prominent African Americans

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