Edelman, Marian Wright

Lawyer, social activist, and premier children's rights advocate in the United States, Marian Wright Edelman aided African Americans in the south during the Civil Rights movement as they asserted their right to vote. She also helped bring visibility to the poor living conditions and starvation facing southern black children and families. In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund as the leading advocate for children's and families' rights. CDF and Edelman continue to bring focus to disparities in health care, education, and other social services, particularly for minority families and children.

Biographical Highlights

Marian Wright Edelman is a lawyer, social activist, and premier children's rights advocate in the United States. As a daughter of devout Baptist parents (her father was a minister), Marian grew up with the ethic of service to others as central to one's life. During the Civil Rights movement, she aided African Americans in the south as they asserted their right to vote, and helped bring visibility to the poor living conditions and starvation facing southern black children and families. In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund as the leading advocate for children's and families' rights. Though a number of other nonprofit organizations address similar issues, CDF and Edelman continue to affect public policy by bringing focus to disparities in health care, education, and other social services, particularly, for minority children and families.

Historic Roots

Named for singer Marian Anderson, Marian Wright was born on June 6, 1939, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the youngest of five children. Her parents were Arthur Jerome and Maggie Leola Bowen Wright. Marian grew up in the segregated South. Her mother and father, a Baptist minister, provided her with "strong values, high expectations, and steady support" (Leeman 1996, 110). They instilled in their children "the belief that serving their community was one of life's highest duties" (Hine and Thompson 1997, 75).

Rev. and Mrs. Wright taught their children that neither poverty nor racism should stand in their way. For example, recognizing that African-American children did not have access to public playgrounds or lunch counters, Rev. Wright built a playground and canteen behind his church. He also built the Wright House for the Aged to provide a place for elderly African Americans to live and receive care. After he died in 1954, Marian's mother carried on the tradition of serving others by continuing operation of Wright House and taking in twelve foster children.

After graduating from Marlboro Training High School, Marian enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She served as student body president. She considered majoring in Russian and pursuing a career as a diplomat, but changed her mind and became an attorney. During the 1958-59 school year, Marian received a Merrill Scholarship to study at the University of Paris and in Geneva, Switzerland. That summer, she served as an exchange student in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Moscow, USSR. She later commented about her perspective-changing experience, "After a year's freedom as a person, I wasn't prepared to go back to a segregated existence" (Ibid., 75-76). Wright graduated as valedictorian in 1960 and, the summer before law school, she participated in a sit-in in Atlanta and was arrested.

She entered Yale University Law School as a J.H. Whitney Fellow in fall of 1960. During summer 1962, she worked in Crossroads Africa, a work project in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. After receiving her law degree in 1963, she became a staff attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City.

The following year, Marian moved to Mississippi to establish a NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund office in Jackson. There, she defended one of the country's largest Head Start programs and volunteers of a massive voter registration campaign, which was often the target of violence. In 1965, she became the first African-American woman to pass the Mississippi bar, and would later pass the exams in both Washington, DC, and Massachusetts. It was in this role with the NAACP that she testified before the Senate and hosted Robert F. Kennedy and his legislative assistant Peter Edelman on a tour in May 1967 of poor shantytowns in the Mississippi Delta to personalize for them the crisis of families living there.

In 1968, she moved to Washington, DC, as counsel for the Poor People's March that Martin Luther King, Jr. began organizing before his death. By the time the March was held in June, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Shortly after these events, on July 14, 1968, Marian married Peter Edelman. Eventually, the couple had three sons together -- Joshua, Jonah and Ezra.

The years after their marriage were incredibly busy and successful for Marian. In 1968, on a Field Foundation grant, she founded the Washington Research Project of the Southern Center for Public Policy. It would later become the parent body of the Children's Defense Fund. She remained a partner at the Project after she moved to Boston with her husband in 1971. In addition, she served as the Director of Harvard University's Center for Law and Education from 1971 to 1973. In 1971, she became the first woman ever elected by alumni to the Yale University Corporation, for which she served as a member until 1977.

In 1973, she established the Children's Defense Fund as "an advocate for the needs of children, with special attention to the poor, minorities, and the disabled" (Britannica Student Encyclopedia 2002). In 1980, Marian became the first black, and only the second female, to chair the Board of Trustees of Spelman College, serving from 1976 to 1987. In 1996, she founded Stand for Children, a grassroots nonprofit organization with local groups, similar to the Children's Defense Fund in its advocacy for children.


Marian Wright Edelman is known for her effectiveness and tenacity as a lobbyist, consistent passion for children and justice, and use of statistics and images to demonstrate the extent of a crisis.

Under her leadership, the Children's Defense Fund sponsored major children's advocacy initiatives. The Black Community Crusade for Children was established in 1992 as "a long term action campaign to alleviate the black child and family crisis" (Hine and Thompson 1997, 77). Also in 1992, the Children's Defense Fund sponsored advertisements during the Republican and Democratic national conventions in an effort to urge Americans to ensure a "healthy start, a head start, and a fair start" for their children. In 1996, in the largest march for children in U.S. history, Marian and 300,000 people challenged the country to Stand for Children, yielding banners that read "Leave No Child Behind" (Britannica Student Encyclopedia 2002).

Marian's most influential political tie helped advance the cause of children's rights during the Clinton Administration. Former First Lady and current New York State Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was once a Children's Defense Fund staff attorney and chairperson. Edelman's influence on the Clinton administration has been compared to the profound impact Mary McLeod Bethune had on Eleanor Roosevelt regarding the plight of the poor, in particular African Americans.

Like many well-recognized advocates, Edelman's work is widely praised. She has more than a hundred honorary degrees and numerous awards. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writing.

As a part of her advocacy, Edelman has published a number of best-selling nonfiction books. Among the five books she has written are: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change; the #1 New York Times bestseller, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Guide My Feet: Mediations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children; a children's book titled Stand for Children; and Lanterns:A Memoir of Mentors.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector:

Throughout her lifetime, Marian Wright Edelman has made, and continues to make, considerable contributions to the philanthropic sector through her work as an activist and advocate. From her life-risking beginnings as a lawyer in the South, working to address the plight of struggling African Americans and to aid them as they asserted their right to vote, Edelman aided in the civil rights successes of the NAACP. Yet, the contribution for which she is best known is the founding of the Children's Defense Fund, a private, nonprofit organization. It is "the strongest advocate and most persistent clearinghouse for information on children in the United States" (Leeman 1996, 112). It receives funding only from foundations, corporate grants and individual donations to support its multi-million dollar annual budget. The Children's Defense Fund has more than 100 employees with varied specialties related to the organization's mission. From its inception, Edelman has guided the Fund to become the premier children's advocacy organization, with countless other nonprofits and grassroots programs across the country benefiting from the public policy accomplishments of CDF.

Key Related Ideas

  • African-American women

  • Children's rights and children's welfare

  • Civil rights movement

  • Head Start

  • Minority rights

As an activist, Marian Wright Edelman has devoted herself to improving the lives of children and minorities. Through her work with the NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Administration, she was heavily involved during the pivotal years of the Civil Rights movement. As an African-American woman, Edelman has broken barrier after barrier as she became the first woman and/or African American to hold various professional and philanthropic board chair positions. As the most outspoken children's rights advocate, Edelman and her organization, the Children's Defense Fund, have raised public awareness and governmental support of issues to improve the lives of children and minority families, such as Head Start.

Important People Related to the Topic

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was a minister and, perhaps, the most widely recognized symbol of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. He led movements and marches in a peaceful manner, including the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955-56. His most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," continues to serve as inspiration for equality in America.

Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) was Attorney General during the administration of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. He also served as a U.S. Senator. He focused on civil rights, poverty, and human rights abroad. He was assassinated at the age of forty in Los Angeles, California, after claiming victory in the important Democratic primary in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Dr. Peter Edelman is a professor of law at Georgetown University Law School, with expertise in poverty, welfare, juvenile justice and constitutional law.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Children's Defense Fund's mission is to "Leave No Child BehindÃ’ and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. The CDF provides a strong, effective voice for all children of America who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves" (Children's Defense Fund 2002). The goal of the CDF is to "educate the nation about the needs of children and encourage investment before they get sick, drop out of school, suffer due to breakdowns in the family structure, or get involved in criminal activity" (Leeman 1996, 112).

Stand for Children is a CDF affiliate which encourages people to improve the lives of children. It is the only grassroots voice for children in the U.S. The mission of Stand for Children is to "identify, train, and encourage local children's activists engaging in advocacy, awareness-raising, and service initiatives on an ongoing basis" through its nationwide chapters (Stand for Children 2002).

Related Web Sites

The Children's Defense Fund Web site, at http://www.childrensdefense.org, contains extensive information on the organization's programs, resources for families and explanations of public policy issues and programs that effect families. It also includes information about Marian Wright Edelman, CDF's founder. The Stand for Children Web site at http://stand.org/ provides information about the accomplishments of this new grassroots child advocacy group, how to join, and Stand for Children Day event information.

The King Center Web site contains information about the King Holiday, programs and services of the Center, the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., related news stories, and online shopping for related products. Available at https://thekingcenter.org/

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Web site, at http://rfkcenter.org, contains biographical information about Robert F. Kennedy. The site also provides extensive information on the RFK Fellows Program, the RFK Center for Human Rights, and the RFK Book, Journalism and Human Rights Awards.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Britannica Student Encyclopedia. Marian Wright Edelman. [cited 29 October 2002]. Available from https://academic.eb.com/?eu=335069.

Children's Defense Fund. Homepage. [cited 27 December 2002]. Available from http://www.childrensdefense.org.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Marian Wright Edelman. [cited 29 October 2002]. Available from https://academic.eb.com/?eu=108000.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. and Kathleen Thompson, associate ed. Facts on File: Encyclopedia of Black Women in America, Volume 10—Social Activism. New York: Facts on File, 1997, 75-77. ISBN 0816034354.

Leeman, Richard W., ed. African-American Orators: a bio-critical sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996, 110-119. ISBN 0313290148.

Salem, Dorothy C. African American Women - A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, 170-172

Stand for Children. Homepage. [cited 27 December 2002]. Available from http://stand.org/.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.