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A Child's Best Friend

Marian Wright Edelman has spent three decades trying to ensure that America's youngest, most vulnerable citizens don't go without necessities or proper care. As founder of the Children's Defense Fund, she's doing all she can to get you to do your part.

March 20, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — When Marian Wright Edelman was growing up in Bennettsville, S.C., an 11-year-old boy she knew stepped on a nail and, for want of proper medical care, died.

Forty years later, she is still outraged.

"Now listen to this," she exhorts a group of well-heeled women gathered recently in the ballroom of Chicago's elegant Drake Hotel. "Every day in America--every day!--81 babies die needlessly, six children commit suicide, 13 children are murdered, 1,827 babies are born without health insurance. . . ."

She fires the facts at her middle-class audience like bullets from a machine gun. Some of the women--even the mayor's wife, Maggie Daley, and Michael Jordan's mother, Deloris, who know the dreadful numbers by heart--fall back in their rose-upholstered chairs and gasp in disbelief.

"Oh my," sighs Jordan, "when Marian talks about the children and their sufferings, it just makes a mother want to break down and cry."

It's OK to cry, says Edelman, but weeping won't solve the problems. As always, Edelman is there to demand action--lobbying for better laws to protect children, money for safer ways to school them and stronger guarantees from every state in the union that all children will get the medical care they need when they need it.

As founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman, 59, has transformed a personal passion into a social institution. Considered by many to be the nation's leading advocate for children, Edelman travels to Los Angeles next week to observe the fund's 25th anniversary of speaking out for the needs of America's youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

A three-day summit on children's needs begins Wednesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Edelman will try to keep the spotlight on the children, but it undoubtedly will stray to illuminate the life of the woman who has been standing up for children since she herself was a child.

Marian Wright was in her third year at Yale Law School when she went to Mississippi to work alongside such legendary leaders as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. Working out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee office in Jackson, she helped to register black voters and to obtain the release of civil rights workers held in local jails.

"I was known as that lady lawyer from up North," she recalls. With the Ku Klux Klan full of new members, it was a dangerous time for a black woman, even one raised in South Carolina, to live and work in the Deep South.

She learned how to start a car with the door open in case there was a bomb, how to stay away from police dogs--especially one on a patrolman's leash. Most important, she learned how to do her job no matter how frightened she was.

Although she had grown up in modest surroundings as the youngest of five children of a Baptist minister and his wife, Wright had never, until Mississippi, encountered such aching deprivation.

Dirty babies with bellies bloated from hunger slumped listlessly on the mud floors of shacks without water, heat or light. Mothers asked her in and, seeing her shock at their hungry children, shrugged and asked her why--why did their children have to suffer? It was a question she could not answer, so she took it to Washington.

She was 27 but looked far younger when she sat down in the spring of 1967 to testify before the Senate's subcommittee on poverty. Freckle-faced, hair held back under a gingham headband, Wright told Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and his colleagues what she had seen in the Mississippi Delta.

"People are starving," she told the committee. "They are starving! And those that get the bus fare to go North are trying to go North. There is absolutely nothing for them to do here. There is nowhere to go. . . ." She invited the senators to see for themselves "the empty cupboards and the people going around begging just to feed their children."

Weeks later, she got a call from Peter Edelman, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Kennedy's legislative assistant, who had come to advance the senator's Mississippi trip. He invited his fellow lawyer to dinner and they talked until midnight. "We had important work to do, but I was immediately struck not only by her intellect, but by how very beautiful she was," says Edelman.

And before long, they were in love.

Peter Edelman, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, was the son of a New Deal Democrat from Minneapolis. His parents were liberals and his father had worked hard in his state for civil rights, but when it came to his son's plans to marry a black woman, "There was a blind spot," says Edelman. "Although he got over it, that was not his finest hour."

In the summer of 1968, Peter and Marian married in a friend's Virginia backyard. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain and social activist, performed the ceremony. Justice Goldberg spoke about love and justice, and held the bride's flowers.

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