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Marian Wright Edelman has been a pivotal force of justice within the last half century. As founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, she has been one of the nation’s foremost advocates for disadvantaged children, working to improve conditions for and protect youth who are disabled, abused, homeless or neglected.

Mrs. Edelman grew up in the segregated Deep South. Despite the socioeconomic and racist attitudes that dominated mainstream society at that time, she acquired a strong sense of self, confidence, and value due to a loving family and community. After being arrested for her activism in the Civil Rights movement, she decided to attend Yale Law School and ultimately became the first African American woman to be admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She used her new credential to defend civil rights activists and help organize the Poor People’s Campaign alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

For over 40 years now, she has sought federal and state resources and reforms for policies connected to improving the lives of the most marginalized children in the country. With no plans to retire, she and her partners at Children’s Defense Fund have been the initiators and facilitators of grassroots projects such as Freedom School, a series of after-school and summer enrichment programs designed to foster a love of learning in children.

Mrs. Edelman has been recognized for her relentless work by several institutions, including the White House, where she received Presidential Medal of Honor at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term.

Full Profile

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life. Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. The Children’s Defense Fund’s Leave No Child Behind® mission is 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.

Mrs. Edelman, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, began her career in the mid-60s when, as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi. In l968, she moved to Washington, D.C., as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began organizing before his death. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children’s Defense Fund. For two years she served as the Director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University and in l973 began CDF.

Mrs. Edelman served on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College which she chaired from 1976 to 1987 and was the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation on which she served from 1971 to 1977. She has received over a hundred honorary degrees and many awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. 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 writings which include: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change; The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children; Stand for Children; Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors; Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind; I’m Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children; I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children; and The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation.

She is a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation and the Association to Benefit Children, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Marian Wright Edelman is married to Peter Edelman, a Professor at Georgetown Law School. They have three sons, Joshua, Jonah, and Ezra, two granddaughters, Ellika and Zoe, and two grandsons, Elijah and Levi.


Marian Wright Edelman Speaker Videos Back to top

An Evening with Marian Wright Edelman: Harvard University


Marian Wright Edelman comments on America’s failure to address child poverty within its own borders and presents the ethical argument as to why it is our responsibility to help the 20% of youth who are struggling economically within our nation. “I usually start with Martin Luther King Jr.,” she introduces the topic. “Because the day he was assassinated he called his mother in Atlanta to give her his next Sunday sermon title and it was ‘Why America May Go to Hell.’”

Mrs. Edelman explains that the sermon drew parallels between the U.S.’s failure to use its vast resources to feed and house its poor and the Biblical proverb of the rich man Dives. In the parable Dives dies and goes to Hell for ignoring a sick homeless man named Lazarus who begged for crumbs in front of his property’s gate each day. “Dives didn’t go to Hell, because he was rich, Dr. King said,” Mrs. Edelman clarifies. “But because Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity.”

South Carolina Hall of Fame: Marian Wright Edelman's Acceptance Speech


Marian Edelman Wright describes the commitment her parents and community displayed to ensure that her generation could have a better life and what we can learn from their example. “People say ‘Oh my goodness, what has happened to children today,’” she relates. “The issue is what has happened to adults today.”

She depicts how the adults in her community made certain that she and her classmates learned what they needed to learn, academically and emotionally, in that the children grew up with an understanding that they had irreplaceable value and potential as agents of change. “It took community; nobody raises a child alone,” Mrs. Edelman notes. “And that cocoon of caring and that buffer against the external world that told black children that we weren’t worth much didn’t get through, because we were told that we were God’s child.”


Speeches / Speaking Engagements Back to top


Topics Include:

  • The State of America's Children
  • Charting a Course for the Next Generation
  • The Measure of Our Success
  • I Can Make a Difference


  • Marian Wright Edelman Speaker Testimonials Back to top

    "Her namesake is Marian Anderson, one of the greatest American singers of all time. The power and range of this Marian's voice is even greater. It brought Robert Kennedy to Mississippi, helped to organize the Poor People's Campaign, inspired Hillary and thousands of other citizens, young and old, to join her through the years in the crusade that has become known as the Children's Defense Fund, the base from which she has changed the future for millions of America's children, by grassroots actions and successful lobbying in Congress, for health care, child care, education, and so much more.

    "Marian Wright Edelman has lived a life of giving. In the process, she has built a family of distinguished citizen-givers. She is a tireless advocate, a driving force, a crusader of conscience. Like her namesake, Marian's voice is always strong and true, singing that we are all children of God and, therefore, must protect all our children."
        President Bill Clinton




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    "Her namesake is Marian Anderson, one of the greatest American singers of all time. The power and range of this Marian's voice is even greater. It brought Robert Kennedy to Mississippi, helped to organize the Poor People's Campaign, inspired Hillary and thousands of other citizens, young and old, to join her through the years in the crusade that has become known as the Children's Defense Fund, the base from which she has changed the future for millions of America's children, by grassroots actions and successful lobbying in Congress, for health care, child care, education, and so much more.

    "Marian Wright Edelman has lived a life of giving. In the process, she has built a family of distinguished citizen-givers. She is a tireless advocate, a driving force, a crusader of conscience. Like her namesake, Marian's voice is always strong and true, singing that we are all children of God and, therefore, must protect all our children."
        President Bill Clinton


    measure_of_our_success

    The Measure of our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours
    To help parents chart a course for their children based on traditional values—self-reliance, family, hard work, justice, the pursuit of knowledge and of brotherhood—Edelman, founder and president of the Childrens Defense Fund, effectively recounts her experience and vision in essays variously addressed to her own children, to all children and to parents. Edelman, who grew up in the segregated South and was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, recalls the community of her childhood where one child's accomplishments gave joy to all, where neighbors took care of each other and where parents instilled a sense of responsibility in their offspring. In the introduction the author's son Jonah examines the value and pressure of being raised by an African American mother and a Jewish father.


    lanterns

    Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors
    Marian Wright Edelman, "the most influential children's advocate in the country" (The Washington Post), shares stories from her life at the center of this century's most dramatic civil rights struggles. She pays tribute to the extraordinary personal mentors who helped light her way: Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Fannie Lou Hamer, William Sloane Coffin, Ella Baker, Mae Bertha Carter, and many others.

    She celebrates the lives of the great Black women of Bennettsville, South Carolina—Miz Tee, Miz Lucy, Miz Kate—who along with her parents formed a formidable and loving network of community support for the young Marian Wright as a Black girl growing up in the segregated South. We follow the author to Spelman College in the late 1950s, when the school was a hotbed of civil rights activism, and where, through excerpts from her honest and passionate college journal, we witness a national leader in the making and meet the people who inspired and empowered her, including Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Zinn, and Charles E. Merrill, Jr.

    Lanterns takes us to Mississippi in the 1960s, where Edelman was the first and only Black woman lawyer. Her account of those years is a riveting first-hand addition to the literature of civil rights: "The only person I recognized in the menacing crowd as I walked towards the front courthouse steps was [a] veteran New York Times reporter. He neither acknowledged me nor met my eyes. I knew then what it was like to be a poor Black person in Mississippi: alone." And we follow Edelman as she leads Bobby Kennedy on his fateful trip to see Mississippi poverty and hunger for himself, a powerful personal experience for the young RFK that helped awaken a nation's conscience to child hunger and poverty.

    Lanterns is illustrated with thirty of the author's personal photographs and includes "A Parent's Pledge" and "Twenty-five More Lessons for Life," an inspiration to all of us—parents, grandparents, teachers, religious and civic leaders—to guide, protect, and love our children every day so that they will become, in Marian Wright Edelman's moving vision, the healing agents for national transformation.


    Topics Include:

  • The State of America's Children
  • Charting a Course for the Next Generation
  • The Measure of Our Success
  • I Can Make a Difference


  • An Evening with Marian Wright Edelman: Harvard University


    Marian Wright Edelman comments on America’s failure to address child poverty within its own borders and presents the ethical argument as to why it is our responsibility to help the 20% of youth who are struggling economically within our nation. “I usually start with Martin Luther King Jr.,” she introduces the topic. “Because the day he was assassinated he called his mother in Atlanta to give her his next Sunday sermon title and it was ‘Why America May Go to Hell.’”

    Mrs. Edelman explains that the sermon drew parallels between the U.S.’s failure to use its vast resources to feed and house its poor and the Biblical proverb of the rich man Dives. In the parable Dives dies and goes to Hell for ignoring a sick homeless man named Lazarus who begged for crumbs in front of his property’s gate each day. “Dives didn’t go to Hell, because he was rich, Dr. King said,” Mrs. Edelman clarifies. “But because Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity.”

    South Carolina Hall of Fame: Marian Wright Edelman's Acceptance Speech


    Marian Edelman Wright describes the commitment her parents and community displayed to ensure that her generation could have a better life and what we can learn from their example. “People say ‘Oh my goodness, what has happened to children today,’” she relates. “The issue is what has happened to adults today.”

    She depicts how the adults in her community made certain that she and her classmates learned what they needed to learn, academically and emotionally, in that the children grew up with an understanding that they had irreplaceable value and potential as agents of change. “It took community; nobody raises a child alone,” Mrs. Edelman notes. “And that cocoon of caring and that buffer against the external world that told black children that we weren’t worth much didn’t get through, because we were told that we were God’s child.”