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Making It

Children's Advocate Followed Her Parents' Example

March 11, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, a leading advocacy organization for children, Marian Wright Edelman is a warrior of words.

She champions the causes of disadvantaged Americans through her lobbying efforts. She uses her research, writing and speaking skills to turn the public's attention to issues such as teen pregnancy, the juvenile-justice system, homelessness, poverty and violence.

Edelman has been credited with being instrumental in the passage of the 1990 Act for Better Child Care. She has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But Edelman is not one to repose upon her laurels.

"I have a passion for what I believe in, and I will never stop persisting," she said. "I'm very determined to help this country become its best self."

Edelman, 61, attributes her perseverance and tireless advocacy to the influence her mentors and role models had upon her. She refers to these people--her parents, elders, community leaders and teachers--as "lanterns," because they lighted the way for her.

Her father and mother instilled in her "the importance of serving and giving," she said. They had high expectations for her, and instructed her to find a purpose in life that would enable her to "leave the world better than I found it," she wrote in "Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors" (Beacon Press, 1999). Having a career and earning top wages were not enough, they said. And they guided Edelman not only with their words, but by their actions.

Both parents ministered to those less fortunate in the family's South Carolina community. As believers in self-help, they did what they could to diminish the sting of prejudice on their neighbors.

"My parents tried to be good moral examples," she said.

Because African American children were barred from playing in public parks, Edelman's father, a Baptist pastor, built a playground with a skating rink and swings for them. Since the children could not eat in "whites-only" restaurants, Edelman's mother opened a canteen, where they could have soda and snacks.

For inspiration, Edelman's father frequently took her to hear renowned African American lecturers, preachers and educators offer words of hope and encouragement to their community. He encouraged her to get an outstanding education and to be disciplined in all that she did. Most of all, he urged her not to give up merely because something was difficult.

Community elders also nurtured Edelman in young adulthood, serving as extended family members and sage advisors.

"I was blessed because so many of these adults spent so much time with children," she said. "Many of these great community women had incredible grit and courage. They never gave up, which is why I'll never give up either."

They counseled her to do more than was necessary and to disregard the low expectations that many in society had set for African American women. They asked her to be truthful, and to take responsibility for her actions. If she erred in judgment, they told her, she should be bold enough to admit and correct her mistakes.

This close-knit fellowship helped Edelman weather the ugliness of racial prejudice. She grew up at a time when African Americans in her community were excluded from public swimming pools, ordered to sit at the backs of buses and had to drink from segregated water fountains.

Such injustices horrified Edelman, and, in keeping with her mentors' teachings, she realized she should fight them in whatever way she could. A graduate of Yale Law School, Edelman became the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. She began doing what her father called "helping work," civil-rights activism.

She registered voters, defended jailed activists, and was arrested during an attempt to desegregate Atlanta restaurants.

She forced formerly "whites-only" schools to admit African American children, but then saw that her precedent-setting actions brought new woes: The children's homes were shot at; their parents sometimes lost their jobs and credit; the children were harassed and taunted at school.

During the 1960s, she attended several lectures by Martin Luther King Jr. She said she learned from him "the courage to be afraid, and to proceed to act, despite fear, uncertainty and fatigue."

She read books about another role model, Sojourner Truth, who spoke out against slavery. She took to heart an anecdote about Truth that showed the woman's fortitude. When a heckler shouted to Truth, "Why, I don't care more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea," Truth responded, "Perhaps not, but the Lord willing, I'll keep you scratching."

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