Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, is a South Carolina native whose social activism was first sparked by her childhood experiences growing up in Bennettsville.
Segregation ruled the day, but Edelman rejected it as illogical and unfair, and that was when she was 5 years old.
Today, she is 76 and an esteemed matriarch of the civil rights movement. She will be in Charleston for a talk hosted by the College of Charleston at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.
Edelman’s appearance at the college is part of the Race and Social Justice Initiative 2016 Lecture Series, made possible by a grant from Google. The series continues on March 31 with a lecture by Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and then Oct. 18 with a talk by National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Edelman learned about commitment and responsibility at an early age, she said.
“I had great parents, great community co-parents; there was never a time when I didn’t think I was going to change the world.”
Her parents set the example. They started a home for the elderly and made their kids (Edelman had 12 siblings) help. They started a canteen behind their church where the children would gather. Her mother and father always were doing something to help others in need and to foster a strong sense of community.
“So much that I do is based on lessons learned from my parents,” Edelman said. That and simple observation.
When a young black boy from her town stepped on a nail, failed to receive proper treatment for tetanus and died, Edelman understood that this was a manifestation of inequality. When an ambulance responded to an auto accident involving several blacks and a white driver, and the paramedics discovered that the white driver was unscathed, they left the scene, abandoning injured black victims. Another lesson learned.
When Edelman, then 5, sauntered innocently up to a whites-only water fountain, her teacher snatched her way in terror. Another box on the list of injustices checked.
“So I became a little renegade,” she said. “I switched the signs.” She infiltrated the public library. She sneered at segregation and sought to undermine it.
Later she would graduate from Spelman College and Yale Law School.
She became director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi, representing poor black residents of Mississippi who wanted access to opportunity. She fought for a mother and father who lived on a plantation and who recognized the academic superiority of white schools. True freedom necessarily includes the freedom to do what’s best for one’s kids, and this couple wanted access to the better schools.
Segregationists shot into their house. Their 14 children were harassed. But 13 of them graduated from the University of Mississippi and became professionals.
Mississippi’s pervasive poverty rattled Edelman. She began to see how racism and economic injustice are interwoven.
She would participate in Freedom Summer, working in 1964 to register black voters. She would get involved in Head Start initiatives. She would go to Washington, D.C., to work on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
“I realized I needed to broaden my perspective and look at poverty,” she said.
Her legal work and her work on the Poor People’s Campaign led her to found the Children’s Defense Fund.
Her philosophy is simple: If poverty exists and some people are consequently at a disadvantage socially and economically, then the remedy must be applied early and vigorously, it must focus on young children. Only in this way might the playing field become level.
Over the years, the Children’s Defense Fund has addressed abuse and neglect, unequal and limited access to health care, education disparities, the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” gun violence, spiritual well-being and more. It has published reports, managed programs, organized retreats, trained educators and civic leaders and administered summer schools.
In the middle of it all is Edelman, the spokeswoman who advocates for universal pre-kindergarten, for an end to mass incarceration and juvenile justice reform, for gun restrictions. She said a recent poll revealed that the worst fear of inner-city youth is gun violence.
“In 2010, 18,270 children and teens died or were injured from guns, 17 classrooms of 20 children every week,” Edelman wrote in her foreword to a 2013 report published by her organization. “Children and teens in America are 17 times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in other high-income countries.”
She said that economic and racial inequalities are a consequence of America’s “birth defects” — slavery, Jim Crow, the removal of Native Americans and the exclusion of women from the public sphere until the 1970s — that never have been properly confronted and resolved.
It must necessarily begin with children, their welfare and their education.
“I don’t know why the country is so dumb in undermining its own interests,” Edelman said, referring to early childhood education. “The greatest economic, military and national security threat comes from within: our failure to invest in our children.”
Instead, she said, Americans tend to blame the wrong enemy.
“They tend to blame poor people of color.” They do so motivated by fear of change. “People feel they’re losing their country, their foothold.” Edelman said. “They are. But they need to get over it. The world is not ending.”
Americans should “decriminalize poverty,” overhaul the criminal justice system, demilitarize the police and reform law enforcement tactics, she said. And, above all, they should invest in their children.
“Every day we face an extraordinary opportunity to show that democracy could work,” she said.
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