Lawyer, children’s rights advocate, and author. Edelman was born on June 6, 1939, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the daughter of the Baptist minister Arthur Jerome Wright and Maggie Leola Bowen. She graduated from Marlboro Training High School in 1956; from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1960; and from Yale Law School in 1963.
Edelman became active in civil rights as a student at Spelman College. Following the historic sit-in of four black students at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, Edelman and seventy-seven other students were arrested on March 15, 1960, for conducting a sit-in at Atlanta restaurants that served only whites. After graduating from law school, Edelman spent a year—financed by an Earl Warren Fellowship—at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), where she learned to litigate a variety of civil rights-related cases. From 1964 to 1968 she served as director of the LDF office in Jackson, Mississippi, where she became the first black woman to pass the state’s bar exam. During her time in Mississippi, Edelman expanded her horizons beyond civil rights to include the issue of children’s rights. In 1965 she helped develop the Child Development Group of Mississippi, which ran Head Start programs for the state’s poor children after the state refused to accept federal funds. For three years she prodded federal officials who were being pressured to discontinue the funding by Mississippi’s powerful and racist U.S. senators James Eastland and John Stennis.
After four years of protracted struggle, Edelman decided to leave Mississippi. The abject poverty and feudal conditions she had observed in the state affected her profoundly. In 1968 she took a position in Washington, D.C., as the legal counsel for Martin Luther King Junior’s planned “Poor People’s Campaign.” On July 14, 1968, she married Peter Edelman, a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy. They met in 1967 when her future husband accompanied Kennedy to Mississippi and witnessed its poverty firsthand. Their union was the first interracial marriage in Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the state’s miscegenation law in Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia. The couple has three sons: Joshua, Jonah, and Ezra.
Edelman founded the Washington Research Project to develop legal strategies to benefit the poor. She continued as the project’s director while also directing the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University, where she had accompanied her husband in 1971. The Washington Research Project ultimately became the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973. The CDF eventually evolved into one of the nation’s strongest and most influential advocates for children in the United States—especially the children of the poor, minorities, and the disabled—and worked to ensure a safe, healthy, and moral start for all children in America.
While she is perhaps best known for her writings on children’s issues, Edelman has written on legal issues related to civil rights and has written her autobiography. In her published work, she ranges from policy, to prose, to poetry. The main current of her work is on children and families, with some interesting segues such as a publication on U.S.–Japan relations, co-authored with David Halberstam and Sadako N. Ogata in 1991. Her work has appeared in both scholarly and popular venues both as the sole author and in collaboration with others. Her stature in the field of child advocacy makes hers a sought-after endorsement of other works on children’s issues, for which she has written either forewords or introductions.
Works like her autobiography Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors and The Measure of Our Success: Letter to My Children and Yours illuminate who Edelman is and how her formative years and time as an activist during one of the most crucial periods of U.S. history are essential to knowing her and to understanding her passion. Her writing career began in the early 1970s. Two of her earliest publications focused on the first twenty years of school desegregation and nonviolent strategies for change. However, since the late 1970s her focus has primarily related to issues regarding children and families. Two of her book-length works, I’m Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children and Guide My Feet: Prayers and Meditations for Our Children, are replete with spiritual messages for children and parents and others who love them, from which consolation and inspiration can be drawn. I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children argues that children can be agents of change and provides multicultural examples.
As founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Edelman recognizes that the success of children is entwined not only with the health of their nuclear family but also with the positive interconnection of people and communities both locally and globally. Edelman’s writings in this policy area, Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change, a series of lectures given at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute in 1986, and, more recently, The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, respectively identify issues that confronted poor, particularly African American, families in the mid-1980s and the continuing threats to American children in the early twenty-first century. Beyond these books, Edelman has exposed the impact of poverty, educational inequality, and gun violence, among other issues, on America’s most vulnerable children. Her publication record crosses disciplinary boundaries, covering medical, legal, and public policy as well as education and religion.
Books such as Families in Peril, and Stand for Children! translate Edelman’s powerful spoken prose and poetics into written form. Although conceived as spoken word, the publication of these speeches as books made Edelman’s ideas accessible to wider audiences.
Marian Edelman’s work places her as a clarion voice for children’s rights, particularly the rights of poor children and children of color. The roots of her South Carolina heritage in faith, family, and caring for the “least of these” infuse her writing. In 2012 she was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Edelman, Marian Wright. Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors. Boston: Beacon, 1999.
———. The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours. Boston: Beacon, 1992.