By Jeanne St. John
My African-American woman hero is Marian Wright Edelman whose life and career has inspired me for over 40 years. As a long-time professional educator and child advocate, I was inspired by the courageous and risky acts and positions Edelman took, beginning in the very uncivil 1960’s. She’s still active today and continuing her mission of defending the rights and lives of children.
Marian Wright Edelman is an American activist for the rights of children. She has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life. She is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families.
While attending Spelman College, she also became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and after being arrested for her activism, she decided to study law and enrolled at Yale Law School where she earned a Juris Doctor in 1963.
Edelman was the first African American woman admitted to The Mississippi Bar. She began practicing law with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.‘s Mississippi office, working on racial justice issues connected with the civil rights movement and representing activists during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. She also helped establish a Head Start program.
Edelman moved in 1968 to Washington, D.C. where she continued her work and contributed to the organizing of the Poor People’s Campaign of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and also became interested in issues related to childhood development and children.
In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund as a voice for poor children, children of color, and children with disabilities. The organization has served as an advocacy and research center for children’s issues, documenting the problems and possible solutions to children in need.
As founder, leader and principal spokesperson for the CDF, Ms. Edelman worked to persuade Congress to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care and protect children who are disabled, homeless, abused or neglected. A philosophy of service absorbed during her childhood under-girds all her efforts. As she expresses it, “If you don’t like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time.”
She continues to advocate youth pregnancy prevention, child-care funding, prenatal care, greater parental responsibility in teaching values and curtailing what she sees as children’s exposure to the barrage of violent images transmitted by mass media.