KID REPORTERS’ NOTEBOOK

A Woman of Justice

Marian Wright Edelman, attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, testifies before the Senate in 1967.
Marian Wright Edelman, attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, testifies before the Senate in 1967.

Marian Wright Edelman, attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, testifies before the Senate in 1967.

In 1973, Marian Wright Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund. The organization works to improve opportunities for kids who live in poverty and other difficult circumstances. This week, I spoke with Edelman in her offices in Washington, D.C., about what inspired her to help children.

“I think it comes out of my own childhood,” she said. “I couldn’t stand being excluded from anything. I couldn’t stand not being able to go to the public library.”

Born in 1939 in South Carolina, Edelman grew up amid racial segregation and prejudice. But she didn’t let that stop her.

The youngest of five children, she was, she said, a rebel from an early age. After being told that the water fountains in her town were either for “whites only” or “blacks only,” Edelman switched the signs. “There’s no such thing as white water or black water,” she said.

 

“FREEDOM SUMMER”

When Edelman was 14, her father died. She still remembers the last thing he told her: “Don’t let anything get in the way of your education.”

Edelman went to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and then to Yale Law School. After studying in Europe, she moved to Mississippi, where she opened a law practice.

In the summer of 1964, young people—black and white—traveled to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. Unfair laws had kept black people from polling places. The freedom workers tried to change the laws. So did leaders like Edelman. This angered many white people and politicians. Anyone seeking change risked being beaten or killed. Churches, homes, and cars were bombed.

I asked Edelman if she ever feared for her life during that time. “Death became a daily reality in Mississippi,” she said. “But when you believe in something very deeply, as I did in racial justice and wanting people to be treated equally, you get beyond thinking about that. We had something that was worth living for. But we also had something that was worth dying for.”

 

“CHILDREN CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE”

Before starting the Children’s Defense Fund, Edelman worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to try to help poor people.

After King was assassinated in 1968, Edelman continued the fight for justice and equality. At age 75, she is still trying to make children’s lives better. When I asked how kids my age can speak up for ourselves, Edelman said that during the Civil Rights Movement, children like Ruby Bridges “were the leaders in many ways,” helping to desegregate schools.

Edelman stressed the importance of reading about the past and knowing the role that kids have played in improving society.

“Always understand that children can make a difference,” she said. “I know you’re going to be one of them.”

WATCH THE VIDEO

Click here to see a video of Abigail’s interview with Marian Wright Edelman.

Photo by Henry Griffin / AP Images