When Marian Wright Edelman was one of five children being raised by a Baptist minister and his choir-directing wife in segregated Bennettsville, S.C., her father offered advice that became the template for her professional life.
"Daddy used to say that God ran a full-employment economy," she says. "Just follow the needs, and you will never lack for a purpose in life."
For nearly half a century, Edelman, 70, has fought tirelessly to help meet the needs of others. The married mother of three sons and grandmother of four is one of the nation's loudest and most persuasive voices for children, families and disadvantaged Americans.
After graduating from Yale Law School, she became the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar Association. She served as director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Miss., in the mid-1960s, and in 1968 was counsel to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign.
She founded a public-interest law firm and served as director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University before creating the Washington, D.C.-based Children's Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973. The CDF's programs are designed to help children living in poverty, improve access to health care for children and pregnant women, decrease the number of youths who end up prison, and develop youth leaders who will become the next generation of child advocates.
Edelman's work as a civil rights leader, author and activist has earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, among other honors.
"It's still important to stay grounded and authentic in this town (Washington, D.C.) about what is right and what is just because it's a place where it's easy to lose your conscience or say one thing and then do another. The children and the poor need an independent voice." says Edelman
Intolerance for injustice
The foundation of her life's mission was established in her early years in South Carolina, where she was raised in a household that expected excellence and integrity and taught lessons through family rituals, studying, service and prayer.
"I grew up with people who believed that service is the rent you pay for living," says Edelman, who today lives in the nation's capital. "I was around adults who tried to live their faith and be good neighbors and tried to fight to make sure children had a better life than they had.
"My role models were buffers against the external segregated world that told me when I was growing up that I wasn't worth much as a black girl, but they said it wasn't so," she says. "They gave me an intolerance for injustice. I grew up very much seeing injustice and I hated segregation. I hated being excluded from anything and I hate any child being excluded from anything."
Her fight for equitable health care for all was born from the horror of seeing a white ambulance driver arrive at a car crash, only to leave without aiding the blacks who had been injured after discovering that the white truck driver wasn't hurt.
Her outrage over children dying needlessly from preventable or curable diseases is a result of her parents' sadness over the tragic death of a boy who didn't receive a tetanus shot after stepping on a nail because his grandmother had neither the money nor the knowledge to get the proper treatment. Her quest for safe places for children to play stems from nearly drowning in a segregated public lake that had inadequate lifeguard service because the nearby pool was for whites only.
"Little Henry in my neighborhood died because he was jumping off a bridge and swimming in a creeknot far from our housethat was a hospital sewage outlet," she says. "So my childhood dictated so much."
Her influences grew as she attended Spelman College in Atlanta and was exposed to the teachings of the Rev. King and his mentor, Benjamin E. Mays. "They reinforced the very messages that I had had in my hometown: Those of us who have much owe giving back," she says.
"The first time I ever heard Dr. King at Spelman, he wasn't afraid to say he was afraid. He wasn't afraid to encourage us to act despite our fears. I remember his speech as if it were yesterday: 'I'm going to get up in the morning, and I'll know what I'm going to do. I'm going to take that first step, even if you can't see the whole stairway, and leave the results to God.'"
Providing tools for success
A great part of Edelman's legacy is the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit child advocacy organization that works to ensure a level playing field for all children.
The CDF has offices in California, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas, as well as a South Carolina operation that's based in Edelman's birth house in Bennettsville (pop. 9,425). She is especially proud of the CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tenn. (pop. 9,409), built on the 157-acre farm that once belonged to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley and now provides a training ground for young leaders.
"Marian is all about family. Not just her family, but everybody's family," says Wendy Puriefoy, president of the D.C.-based Public Education Network. "She has devoted her entire life to building the supports for children who don't have the safety net that her children and grandchildren have. She was born to do the work of the Children's Defense Fund. Caring for and helping others to care for children is her life's work.
"There are no words that truly capture the spirit, the will and determination, the vision, the intellect, the stamina and the eloquence of this woman," Puriefoy says. "She is captivating and powerful."
"She is a unique witness among us," adds Mark Ridley-Thomas, supervisor of Los Angeles County's Second District. "She is unwavering in her commitment to the next generation of leaders."
'You don't give up'
The fast talker still logs 16-hour days and a hectic travel schedule that includes numerous public appearances to keep children's issues at the forefront, because "children don't vote or lobby." During the last several months, Edelman has analyzed details of congressional health care proposals to ensure that children and families are protected.
While acknowledging that she gets discouraged, she refuses to give up. After all, she says, look at what's at stake.
"I am inspired daily by the values of my children, by the examples of my childhood, and I am inspired daily by the valiant struggle of children," she says.
"My faith doesn't tell me that you have to win. You've got to get up every day and decide to do the best that you can. You don't give up; you persevere. We don't have the right to give up on any child."