A Tribute to Marian Wright Edelman – The 'Conscience' of the Nation

In 1967, Marian Wright Edelman advised the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York to recommit themselves in the fight against chronic poverty. Not yet 30 years old, Edelman was the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. in Jackson, Mississippi. Her prodding encouraged King to launch the Poor People’s Campaign a year later. For Kennedy, who Edelman escorted on a poverty tour in the Mississippi Delta, her insistence elevated poverty reduction to the forefront of his future presidential campaign.

Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973 to challenge the United States to improve its policies for children. Her anti-poverty activism included grassroots mobilization and institutional advocacy. In September, she stepped down as president and CEO. However, Edelman remains a member of CDF’s board of directors and continues to work as the organization’s president emerita in the Office of the Founder.

Born in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1939, Edelman developed a righteous indignation to injustice at a young age. As a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, she was arrested in 1960 for protesting racial segregation in that city. Her involvement in the sit-ins there brought her into the movement circle of Ella Baker and other activists who made up the nucleus of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

After graduating from Yale University Law School in 1963, Edelman moved to Mississippi where she became the first Black woman to pass the bar. She soon developed a reputation as a fierce advocate for Head Start, an early childhood education and development program, through her work with the Child Development Group of Mississippi. Edelman’s tireless efforts nearly led to the passage of the Comprehensive Child Development Act before it was vetoed by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Twenty years later, she won a monumental victory with the passage of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, which provides child care assistance to low-income working families.

Edelman standing with Robert Kennedy working with the Children's Defense Fund.

At the Children’s Defense Fund, Edelman displayed an undying belief that government institutions are morally obligated to resolve poverty. There is verifiable evidence, she insisted, that government-backed programs such as Head Start and Medicaid produce positive outcomes for poor children. The Medicaid program provides health insurance for low-income families and individuals. The challenge was whether government institutions and policymakers have the political will to establish and sustain these programs.

Backed by an apparatus of regional, state, and local affiliates, the CDF operated as a social policy ombudsman under Edelman’s leadership. It monitored regulatory and budget decisions affecting policies such as Medicaid, children’s health insurance, Head Start, and tax credit programs. The CDF also published research reports tailored for lawmakers on issues pertaining to racial disparities and school discipline, child poverty, and gun violence.

One of Edelman’s signature initiatives was the formation of the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) in 1990. Her impetus for the BCCC was announced in a 1990 commencement speech at Howard University’s graduation, calling “the nation to action to save Black children — and all children — and to replace the current climate of despair with one of hope and struggle.” The BCCC blossomed into a national network of prominent advocates and public health officials. The Black Student Leadership Network (BSLN) was formed in 1991 as the BCCC’s youth arm.

Edelman speaks to audience in front of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The summer Freedom Schools program was the centerpiece of CDF/BCCC/BSLN activities. Staffed by hundreds of students and young adults, Freedom Schools spread to dozens of cities and educated thousands of low-income children. The CDF’s Haley Farm served as a movement training center for Freedom Schools activists, child advocates and religious leaders. Haley Farm, a 157-acre farm in Clinton, Tennessee, was purchased from Roots author Alex Haley in 1994.

President Bill Clinton awarded Edelman the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. The distinction is the nation’s highest civilian award, yet it does not fully capture the breadth of her accomplishments. By marrying grassroots mobilization and institutional advocacy, Edelman influenced nearly every anti-poverty legislation at the federal level in the last 50 years. At the same time, she put situated communal caregiving institutions and Black advocates at the center of important social policy debates.

Edelman leaves the CDF with an outsized legacy. As a fitting tribute, she will be remembered as the “conscience” of the nation and a prophetic voice — a precursor to the Black Lives Matter movement — directly responsible for saving the lives of thousands of children. Edelman belongs in the pantheon of freedom fighters — along with Bethune, Baker, King, and Kennedy — that breathed justice into the American democratic experiment.

Sekou M. Franklin is associate professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014) and co-author with Ray Block Jr., of Losing Power: African Americans and Racial Polarization in Tennessee Politics (University of Georgia Press, 2020).