“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving
your community and world better than you found it.”
— Marian Wright Edelman
By Anne Shen
Activist. Lawyer. Author. Leader. Advocate. For nearly six decades, Marian Wright Edelman has overcome discrimination to fight on the front lines of civil rights and children’s welfare in the US. Born the youngest of five children on June 6, 1939, Edelman spent her early life in racially segregated South Carolina, where public schools provided inadequate opportunities for black students. However, Edelman excelled academically and continued her education at Spelman College, a prominent black women’s liberal arts institution in Atlanta.
As the 1960s Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Edelman joined in its protests and was arrested while participating in a sit-in. Her experiences prompted her to pursue law as a tool for social progress, and she entered Yale Law School as a J.H. Whitney Fellow in 1960. After receiving her law degree, Edelman joined the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi, where she helped defend black voter registration programs against violence. Just two years later, in 1965, Edelman became the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar.
In addition to civil rights, Edelman’s concerns extended to the poverty facing communities across the Mississippi River Delta, later stating, “Once you won your case, you had to make sure they had something to eat.” In 1967, she testified before a Senate subcommittee hearing on poverty in the rural South as well as hosted Senator Robert F. Kennedy and his assistant, Peter Edelman, on a tour of shantytowns and sharecropper communities. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began organizing the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Edelman moved to Washington, DC to serve as legal counsel for the movement. The same year, she married Peter Edelman in Virginia, becoming the first interracial couple to marry in the state since the Supreme Court decriminalized interracial marriage.
Although Dr. King was assassinated before carrying out the campaign for economic equality, Edelman continued the fight and founded the Washington Research Project (WRP), a public interest law firm that monitors federal programs directed toward low-income households. Under her leadership, the WRP helped the federal government expand nutritional programs and enforce proper management of monetary aid within school districts. From 1971-73, she also served as director of the Harvard Center for Law and Education, a research institute jointly established to protect and expand access to quality education, especially for economically disadvantaged students. In 1971, Yale alumni elected her to serve as the first woman member of the Yale University Corporation, and she chaired the Spelman College Board of Trustees from 1976-87.
After years of activism for racial and economic equality, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973, with the mission to “lift children out of poverty; protect them from abuse and neglect; and ensure their access to health care, quality education and a moral and spiritual foundation.” Edelman has tirelessly advocated for government resources for children, citing a deep spiritual commitment to her service: “All great nations face the test of morality and pleasing God. What about the orphan and the widow? We could care for them and still have more than enough for those who have more than everyone else.”
Edelman has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and the MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, President Clinton also awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the US government, for her years as a “passionate advocate on behalf of children, minorities, and the poor…a powerful voice to those too often unheard.” She has also received the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings, which include the #1 New York Times bestseller The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (1992).
At age 76, Edelman continues her lifelong dedication to advocacy at the CDF, maintaining that “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”
Anne Shen is a senior at Wellesley College majoring in biological sciences. Wellesley College is home to the Eta of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.