Edelman, Marian Wright
Activist Marian Wright Edelman (Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Marian Wright Edelman

(b. 1939) Attorney and Activist

Children’s rights activist and lawyer Marian Wright Edelman spent about five eventful years in Mississippi working on a variety of civil rights activities, especially involving the law, education, and poverty. She was the first African American woman to practice law in the state.

Born in 1939, Wright was named after opera singer Marian Anderson and grew up in Bennettsville, South Carolina, where her father was a Baptist preacher. An extraordinary student, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta and won fellowships to study in Europe and in Africa as part of a Peace Corps project. She earned a degree from Yale Law School in 1963 and then started “getting ready for Mississippi” with the aid of an Earl Warren Fellowship from the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Wright went to Greenwood as an NAACP activist in 1963 and immediately witnessed marches over the vote—complete with police officers using dogs against marchers—and controversies about food for the poor. What she saw solidified her decision to work in Mississippi as a lawyer. She moved to Jackson and opened an office on Farish Street, working for the Legal Defense and Education Fund. To gain access to Mississippi’s courts, she registered as a law clerk with Jackson’s only African American attorneys, R. Jess Brown, Carsie Hall, and Jack Young. When she first went into court in 1964, white lawyers and judges refused to shake her hand, and one Meridian judge angered her by making her sit next to the sheriff and deputy sheriff from Neshoba County, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman had been murdered in the summer of that year. Her legal work involved both lawsuits over segregation and discrimination and defense work for activists sent to jail for taking part in protests. She became a member of the Mississippi bar in November 1965.

While in Mississippi, Wright also served on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the legal advisory committee for the Council of Federated Organizations. She served on the boards of both the Delta Ministry and the Child Development Group of Mississippi, and she and Henry Aronson coauthored a pamphlet, Your Welfare Rights, that they distributed to poor people in the state. Her career blurs any lines scholars tend to draw between the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, between legalistic and direct action protesters, and between insiders and outsiders.

She was particularly important in supporting the Child Development Group’s Head Start work. She worried that the administrative style of the group’s founder, Tom Levin, opened him up for criticism both from African Americans and whites in Mississippi and from federal authorities who wanted to ensure that the group was spending federal money in responsible and accountable ways. Wright tried to find a way to further the group’s goals without alienating the federal government, in part by nominating John Mudd, a Harvard graduate who had worked briefly in Mississippi, as Levin’s replacement.

Wright was awed by the men and women both inside and outside Mississippi whose efforts to change life in the state showed “the ability of determined people to resist and overcome evil through personal and collective will.” However, she grew frustrated with the situation in the state, and the “continuing attack on Mississippi Head Start programs was one impetus for my moving to Washington in 1968.”

In 1967 she testified before a US Senate committee about poverty in Mississippi. Committee member Robert Kennedy then contacted Wright to arrange a tour of impoverished areas in the Delta, and she used her knowledge and connections to show him areas around Greenville, Marks, and Cleveland. On that trip she met Kennedy’s assistant, attorney Peter Edelman, whom she married in Virginia in 1968. The Edelmans, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were leading figures in the Poor People’s Campaign that began in 1968.

In 1973 Marian Wright Edelman organized the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), and she has remained its president for more than forty years. The CDF uses lobbying, policy study, and training to highlight and address the problems of poor children, among them poverty, inadequate health care, educational deficiencies, child abuse and other violence, and juvenile justice. The organization also runs the Black Community Crusade for Children as well as a special initiative for children affected by Hurricane Katrina. The CDF’s mission statement proclaims the goal of ensuring “every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.” Edelman coined the term “Leave No Child Behind,” although despite the similarity of the phrase, she rarely agreed with the George W. Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” efforts.

Edelman has received numerous awards, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Institutes and buildings have been named in her honor. She has written numerous books that mix policy statements about protecting children with words of inspiration and advice.

Further Reading

  • Children’s Defense Fund website, www.childrensdefense.org
  • John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
  • Marian Wright Edelman, Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change (The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures) (1989)
  • Marian Wright Edelman, Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors (2000)
  • Marian Wright Edelman, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (1993)
  • Polly Greenberg, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes (1969)
  • Ellen Meacham, Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi (2018)
  • Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Sovereignty Commission Online website, http://mdah.state.ms.us/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/
  • Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)
  • Marian Wright, Henry Aronson, and John Mudd, New South (Winter 1966)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Marian Wright Edelman
  • Coverage b. 1939
  • Author
  • Keywords marian wright edelman
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 4, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 8, 2018