This week’s saint in honor of Black History month is Marian Wright Edelman.
Mrs. Edelman is definitely not a saint in the traditional/Catholic sense as she is still alive writing and working. Her work is worth highlighting today the last day of Black History Month.
Mrs. Edelman was born in Bennetsville, South Carolina, on June 6, 1939. Her father was a Baptist preacher and instilled a deep appreciation for education and community service in his children. Edelman’s father had founded the Wright Home For the Aged and expected that his children helped out with the chores there. Marian worked there often and when she was not doing chores she read books since, “The only time my father wouldn’t give me a chore was when I was reading, so I read a lot.”
Growing up with this focus on community service and education would drive much of Mrs. Edelman’s life work. Spurred by her father’s last words, “Don’t let anything get between you and your education,” she would continue her education at Spelman College in Atlanta and would receive scholarships to study abroad in Paris, Switzerland and Moscow. When she came back to Atlanta she became involved with the civil rights movement in the 1960s and her participation in sit ins and other protests would lead to her being arrested. This encounter with the law inspired her to study law at Yale Law School and ultimately become the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. Marian said that she decided to study law, “to be able to help black people, and the law seemed like a tool needed.” She began her work as a lawyer for the NAACP in Mississippi where she worked on racial justice issues and represented many of the activists during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.
Mrs. Edelman’s legacy that I would highlight today began during her civil rights work when she became a lawyer for the Child Development Group in Mississippi and helped restore funding for Head Start programs. She would move to Washington DC shortly thereafter in 1968 where she worked for the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started. Mrs. Edelman also founded the Washington Research Project as a public interest law firm and her focus quickly turned to issues surrounding children in poverty, childhood development and children’s education. This new focus on issues surrounding children would inspire her to found the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. The Children’s Defense Fund advocated for poor children, children of color, and children with disabilities. It would also serve as a research center documenting problems and possible solutions to help children in need. Through her work in the CDF, Mrs. Edelman worked to persuade Congress to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care and protect children who are disabled, homeless, abused or neglected. In 1997 she even stood up against welfare legislation under the Clinton administration saying that because she believed it would lead to record numbers of uninsured children, increased child abuse, and rising firearms deaths. Mrs. Edelman criticized the welfare package by writing, “if America does not stand up now for its children, it will not stand strong in the new millennium.”
Mrs. Edelman continues to advocate for youth and children programs to this day. She works for youth pregnancy prevention, child-care funding, prenatal care, greater parental responsibility in teaching values and limiting children’s exposure to violent images in the mass media. Edelman serves on a host of boards and councils in her continuing advocacy for children and youth. She has written many books and many of her articles are available online.
I pray that Mrs. Edelman’s example inspires us to make service to others a primary element of our life. I pray that our eyes are open to children in need around us. I pray that, whether in church, in schools or our neighborhoods, that we would be open to helping children in need. I pray that our hearts and eyes will be open to the often quiet pain and suffering of a child.
“Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”
Marian Wright Edelman