The Defenders

Marian Wright Edelman

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“I cannot preach like Dr. King or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou . . . I don’t have Harriet Tubman’s courage or Eleanor Roosevelt’s political skill . . . I wish I was holy like Archbishop Tutu, or forgiving like President Mandela, or disciplined like Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not, but I care, and each of us can stand and be willing to serve with others for our children.”

Marian Wright Edelman was born in South Carolina during the era of Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws mandated that African Americans be segregated, or separated, from white people. They had to use drinking fountains labeled for “colored” people, some restaurants refused to serve them, and public transportation like buses had a section for whites in the front and a section for non-whites in the back. When Marian was 14, her dying father urged her to pursue an education.

During the Jim Crow era, African American children were forced to attend different schools than white children. The standard established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 said separate schools did not violate the “equal protection“ clause. Often remote and run-down, these schools were given less funding than white schools. As a result, the schools had limited resources, such as outdated or worn textbooks from white schools. Despite the challenges that segregation created, Marian followed the advice of her father and completed high school. She then attended Spelman College in Mississippi, a historically all-black school, visited the Sorbonne in France and the University of Geneva in Switzerland, which were not segregated.

She returned from Europe with a desire to end the system that had limited her opportunities in the United States, and immediately joined the Civil Rights Movement. She decided that she could do more to help as a lawyer, so she went to law school at Yale and became the first African American woman to pass the Mississippi Bar exam. She then joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a lawyer, representing those who were illegally arrested for fighting for their civil rights.

After passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal government began the process of forcing many state and local governments to stop violating the civil rights of their black citizens by removing laws that discriminate based on race. The standard of separate but equal was no longer constitutional. At this time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, began shifting his efforts to focus on the poor, organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. Many people stopped following Dr. King at this time, arguing that his efforts were no longer necessary after the Civil Rights Act, but Marian stuck with him.

While working with Dr. King, Marian noticed that even though schools had become desegregated, the effects of years of segregation continued to disadvantage African American students and caused them to continue to fall behind their white peers. Unwilling to let this stand, she fought for the funding of Head Start, a program designed to enrich the earlier childhood experiences of poor children, who were often African American, and thereby better prepare them for elementary school. She succeeded, and many Head Start programs across the country are named after her today.

In 1974, Marian founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) which, to this day, continues to work to ensure a level playing field for all children. With Marian as its leader, the CDF has spearheaded the fight for children’s health, education, and overall well-being.

WHY DO CHILDREN NEED PROTECTION?

Although social institutions like the government may seem faceless and impersonal, it is important to remember that they are created and run by people. People can create laws, regulations, and systems that are unfair and even harmful to others with or without realizing it. Some systems are built on keeping people out or, at least, are built on old systems meant to keep people out. For instance, many schools in the United States are funded at a local level, meaning that poorer neighborhoods have schools with less funding while wealthier neighborhoods have schools with more funding. This divide is problematic, as it creates a situation where poor children are less likely to get a quality education and break the cycle of poverty. It is especially problematic since African Americans are disproportionately likely to live in poor neighborhoods as part of the legacy of legal discrimination.

While these problems can be bad for adults, they’re devastating for children. Children are still developing physically, emotionally, and mentally. Any disruption to their lives can permanently put children at a disadvantage. For example, many people live in what are called food deserts: places where access to a full grocery store is inaccessible or very inconvenient. As a result, the people living in these areas survive on mostly processed foods with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Without these nutrients for growth and development at such a crucial time of their lives, children raised in food deserts could later suffer from health issues, such as malnutrition.

We have an obligation to defend our inalienable human rights, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and to fight for a world where the lives of all people are equally respected, without discrimination or prejudice.

WANT TO HELP ADVOCATE FOR CHILDREN?

  • Learn about the Children Defense Fund’s current activity at their website and see how you can get involved.
  • Find out who represents you in government here and call them!
  • Check out some groups that advocate for children’s rights here. Find one that suits you and volunteer.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.