Marian Wright Edelman
In the 1940s, when Marian Wright was growing up, her birthplace of Bennettsville, South Carolina, was a typical Southern town ruled by segregation and riddled with injustice. She recalled the lesson taught and practiced by her minister father, who created the town’s only canteen and playground for blacks: “If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it.”
Change for Edelman has meant advocacy, through the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), which she founded in 1973. The agency is now a powerful force on Capitol Hill led by a woman whom senator Edward Kennedy calls “the 101st senator on children’s issues.” In 2000 Edelman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom as “a tireless advocate, a driving force, a crusader of conscience” on behalf of children.
Edelman studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, the nation’s largest liberal arts college for black women, and gave up her plans for a diplomatic career during the height of the civil rights movement. Armed with her Yale law degree, she went south with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “I chose Mississippi,” she said, “because it had some 900,000 blacks and just three black lawyers.” Today CDF engages in research, public education, monitoring federal agencies, assisting with legislation, and legal testimony.