The Ms. Q&A: Marian Wright Edelman is Sowing Seeds for Social Change

When Marian Wright Edelman was a little girl growing up in segregated South Carolina, she used to switch “white” and “colored” signs above drinking fountains. This penchant for calling out inequality—and her willingness to act—became a life-long trait.

Edelman was the first black female lawyer in Mississippi. She was an influential civil rights organizer under her mentors Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Howard Zinn. Her work brought impoverished Americans’ needs to the forefront of national discourse; she herself took Robert F. Kennedy to meet poor families in Appalachia. In 1973, she founded the groundbreaking Children’s Defense Fund, of which she is now President Emerita. She’s also the author of the weekly Child Watch column and books like Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors and The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom winner is known for being a relentless truth teller when it comes to poverty, racial injustice, economic inequality and the need for political transparency. She is a master organizer, gifted writer and unparalleled public speaker. Her words hold the kind of precision and moral clarity that lays bare the numerous ways in which the United States of America is lacking, while illuminating what it could still be.

Ms. had the honor of corresponding with Edelman in advance of her 80th birthday next month. She opened up to us about gun violence, transformative change, naming injustice and ways to be a good ancestor. The eloquent and inspiring responses she sent our way confirmed what we already knew.

If you’re looking for a hero in these troubled times, you can’t do any better than Marian Wright Edelman.

Marian Wright Edelman is a legendary organizer and advocate who has devoted her life to fighting for the most vulnerable Americans. (Photo courtesy of Children’s Defense Fund)

You’ve stated that a society can be measured by how it treats its children. In what ways are we failing children in America right now? 

The great German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Our wealthy nation flunks Bonhoeffer’s test every day as we permit a child to drop out of school every 9 seconds of the school day; be abused and neglected every 47 seconds; be born into poverty every 41 seconds; be born without health insurance every minute; be killed by gun violence every 2 hours and 48 minutes. It’s disgraceful that children are the poorest age group in our nation. More preschool children die from gun violence each year than law enforcement officers in the line of duty.

The greatest national and economic security challenges we face come from no foreign enemy but from our failure to ensure that millions and millions of children get healthy, fair and safe starts in life to make a successful transition to productive adulthood. Children do not come in pieces. You have to address the needs of the whole child.

How do the Children’s Defense Fund’s programs seek to address obstacles children face? 

Our most important work at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is sowing seeds. The Parable of the Sower teaches that you have to plant and nurture a lot of seeds because some will be eaten by birds, some will be washed away by rain and some may never take root. But if you keep planting and tending them, many will take root and blossom. Our programs that advocate for and lift up children and young people are sowing those seeds and growing the next generation of advocates that will lead the movement for children.

Our CDF Freedom Schools program is rooted in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964. CDF Freedom Schools reach more than 12,000 children annually, instilling in them a love of reading and empowering them to excel and to believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, country and world. The intergenerational leadership model of CDF Freedom Schools, led by college students, is helping build a pipeline of committed, young, mostly non-white servant leaders who are becoming educators and lifelong advocates for children. 

CDF’s Beat the Odds program honors outstanding high school students who have faced tremendous adversity, demonstrated academic excellence and given back to their communities. They are truly awe-inspiring. They have become lawyers, doctors, educators, Peace Corps volunteers, elected officials and outstanding citizens. They are a reminder that none of us has a right to give up on any child and all of us lose when we waste the fine minds and potential of countless children every year. 

You have a wonderful weekly “Child Watch Column.” How is being a writer complimentary to your work as an organizer and activist? 

I never seem to run out of topics for the Child Watch Column. At any given time I have about a dozen different topics I want to write about because of the disgraceful failure of our nation to protect children who are the most vulnerable.

We allow our children to face daily gun violence and constant school shootings; callous budget cuts to programs children and families need to survive; government policies that condone ripping babies from their mothers’ arms at the border; and the list goes on.

It is called the Child Watch Column because it seeks to sound the alarm about ongoing threats to children’s lives and well-being. It goes out every Friday to child and family advocates who want to take action, newspaper editors who need to stay informed, faith leaders who preach about child needs in their congregations. I continue to do it every week because we can never stop calling out evil and injustice wherever we see it. 

In Lanterns, there is a passage about being a good ancestor. (I love that your childhood home is now a CDF office.) How can we achieve “good ancestry” individually and collectively? 

Every issue CDF addresses comes from a personal childhood experience of mine growing up in a racially segregated southern town. The boy two doors down from our church who died after stepping on a nail because he couldn’t access health care or get a tetanus shot. The friend who died jumping from a bridge into a creek due to the lack of recreational facilities and unequally funded Black and White segregated schools.

We must constantly ask ourselves how we plan to create a nation and world fit for our children and grandchildren and what kind of people we want our children to be. What kind of moral examples, teachings and choices—personal, community, economic, faith and political—are we parents, grandparents, political leaders and citizens prepared to make to assure our children are strong and empowered to help build a more just, more compassionate and less violent nation and world?

It’s up to us to teach our children how to treat themselves and others and model that behavior in our homes, congregations, schools and communities and hold people in power accountable when children are mistreated. 

In The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours you say we should “call things by their right names.” Are there mistruths that are currently being spread in America that you think we need to name? 

Many mistruths begin with what children are taught—or not taught—about our nation’s history. We must confront our nation’s birth defects of Native American genocide, slavery and exclusion of women and people of color from our electoral process. And we have to work tirelessly to eradicate their continuing effects on our lives and the lives of our children and to confront the growing voices of those who want to turn back the clock of racial and economic progress through mass incarceration, voter suppression, the criminalization of the poor, an unjust criminal justice system, separate and unequal funding for schools and massive poverty and systemic economic inequality that plague us still.

Only the truth can make us free.

I attended the Gun Safety March in Washington, D.C., shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, and listened to you speak at the podium beside parents whose children had been killed. Families were holding signs in the snow with the children’s ages; there was a choir that sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What do you think of you when you look back on that day? What will it take to achieve real and meaningful change for youth and gun safety?

We must confront and reject the pervasive gun violence that threatens everyone.

CDF began an anti-gun violence campaign in 1990 which continues today to “protect children, not guns.” I am so proud of the young voices that have risen to lead this movement. In a nation obsessed with guns and unwilling to give up easy access to weapons of war, this generation has learned a sad truth that there is no space in America safe from gun violence—not religious congregations, movie theaters, schools, preschool centers, streets, or playgrounds. Thankfully, unlike many adults who seem to have become numb to gun violence and shaken their heads thinking nothing is ever going to change, courageous youths are standing up to say: Enough. No more. No more in our schools or our communities. Do something—now. Every caring adult must stand with them. We must reject the NRA’s argument for guns as a matter of national security and recognize that guns kill more Americans within our nation than enemies abroad.

It is way past time for our nation to protect children instead of guns and join the young people demanding a right to be safe in their schools, on their streets and in their congregations.

In the current remembrances of Robert F. Kennedy, you have been interviewed about your role in bringing him to meet impoverished Americans in the Mississippi Delta and the impact those visits had on his life and policies. In what ways might politicians today learn from his example? 

Robert Kennedy’s capacity for genuine outrage and compassion was palpable. He kept his word to try to help Mississippi’s hungry children and his visibility and commitment helped set in motion a chain of events that led to major policy reforms and massive expansion of child and family nutrition programs. It was he who suggested Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bring the poor to Washington when I shared my frustration with Mississippi’s foot-dragging in getting food to people literally on the verge of starvation. Although his life was snuffed out before he could finish the work he set out to do he left a powerful legacy and charge for those who seek to fulfill his vision and change our nation’s course.

We need leaders today with the same passionate commitment to social and economic justice and the same drive to keep our nation’s promise to our children.

You often write about faith being an important part of your life and have Faith Based Action as part of CDF’s work. You have also shared a bit about being in an interfaith marriage and the overlap in “the golden rule” between religions. How do you see religion in conversation with social justice? 

Freedom and justice are not negotiable to people who truly seek to honor God. People of faith who advocate for children place a special priority on protecting children and caring for the poor, the sick, the stranger and all those who are most vulnerable and excluded—calls that run through the sacred writings of every major religious tradition. Child advocates of all faiths take seriously the charge to treat every child as sacred and made in God’s image. When I begin to feel overwhelmed by the enormity and urgency of the challenges facing children in our nation and world, I pray just to care and to serve.

As the first black female lawyer in Mississippi you set your own course in a world that didn’t make it easy. What would you say to young women seeking to break barriers or being firsts in their fields? 

I grew up in a family where my educated Baptist minister father and church organist and organizer mother were clear that their daughters were as smart as their sons and all of us were expected to succeed and give back. They took us to see great role models of color whenever they came within 150 miles of our home. I was named after Marian Anderson and met Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune when I was a very young girl. And my parents’ marriage was a partnership and everything they began together endures today in my hometown.

I think back to all of the women—sung and unsung—who were my role models from childhood. I learned early about women who made a difference and pushed against societal expectations, took risks and found and raised their voices. Black women during my childhood were the invisible but strong backbone of our churches and schools, and doing the behind-the-scenes but essential leadership, organizational and fundraising work to get things done. Whenever women rise up to lead, we all benefit.

You write beautifully about your mentors—Ella Baker, Howard Zinn, MLK Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer—as well as your parents, pastors, teachers, civic and civil rights leaders, saying: “I did not come into or get through life alone. Neither did you.”  What should we remember about moving forward together, in solidarity and community? 

Making our nation and world fit for all our children and grandchildren is a task for marathoners—not sprinters or dabblers here today and gone tomorrow. Transformative change is a complex, long-term and never-ending struggle that must be pursued with urgency and persistence. And never has the call to moral and political struggle for justice been more urgent in our nation and world as today when forces of regression seek to erode—indeed destroy—decades of progress and dash the hopes of millions of children for a life free from poverty, hunger, homelessness and unequal education and health care.

Sojourner Truth, one of my role models, was a brilliant and indomitable slave woman who could neither read nor write but was a passionate anti-slavery warrior and demander of being heard as a woman. At the end of one of her antislavery talks in Ohio, a man came up to her and said: “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.” 

“Perhaps not,” she answered, “but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”

Enough committed fleas—biting together with our votes, organizing and nonviolent protests—can make even the biggest dogs uncomfortable, and transform even the biggest nation.

About

Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.