At the crest of the civil rights movement, Marian Wright Edelman was one of the names that symbolized the young energy of the South.
She moved with the movement: in the late '50s, it was from a small town (her birthplace of Bennettsville, S.C.,) to a critical axis of the action (Atlanta) where she was one of the student sit-in leaders. In the early '60s, it was to the movement's soul (Mississippi). And in 1968, it was to Washington for the Poor People's Campaign, one of the last vestiges of the '60s symbolism.
Now Edelman represents the adjustment of the fractured movement's values. Her fight is still the fight against discrimination, but she discusses the struggle in broad, economic terms. Her cause is children: her tack is colorblind. And while much of her old colleagues' energy is muted, hers is not
"I am still determined, the rage and the unrest are still in me. I don't like being told no," says Edelman, now a resident of Chatham, N.Y., where she lives with her husband, Peter, also a '60s civil rights alumnus, and their three sons. Marian and Peter Edelman have both taken the urgency and the lessons learned from the '60s to new projects. Peter is New York State Commissioner of Youth Services; Marian is director of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), headquartered in New York. She is addressing the American Personnel and Guidance Association convention today at the Washington Hilton.
Her restlessness is not only psychological; it's physical. On her weekly trips to the fund's offices here, she blasts from meeting to meeting. Once in her Dupont Circle office, she sits but doesn't settle, pushing her back against the canvas of the director-stylw chair posed like a missile. Her fretfulness infuses her speech with a speed that sometimes garbles the words. This torrent is disarming contrast to the soft angles of her face, the warm passion of her words.
Take her discussion of how family life has softened her abrasive edges. "I guess that's true," says Edelman, surprised at the theory of her sister, Olive Covington, the public information officer for the D.C. public schools. "But Peter's work and the children have given me a sense of urgency," she continues. "I worry about their health care, I worry about another mother's child who doesn't even go to the dentist and I worry about my kids' schools, and all schools. I don't want any ceilings on my children's lives, or any others. My softness, my maternalness is there, but it's a curious contradiction because I am more determined."
Childrens advocacy, for Edelman, is a natural second-generation follow-up to school desegregation. "CDF is here to make children an interest group, to press for a national family policy. we know the problems - lack of education, poor education, parental abuse and institutional abuse. Besides the school issues, there are health needs, the juvenile justice system. foster care homes." says Edelman, reeling off a long list of CDF concerns. "Now we monitor and lobby around these issues but we have to find a way to politicize them. The key is multiple tactics and flexible issues."
Therefore, for Marian Edelman, the last few years have been ones of refined details, not the passive musing that shortened other activists' careers. Out of her Atlanta colleagues, however, she's not unique: Ben Brown is now with the administration, Julian Bond has become a nationally-known politician and Alice Walker turned similar Georgia and Mississippi experience into fine literature.
Now you look for issues that cross the lines," she says, adding quickly that her course has not changed, only the ground rules have."Segregation was clearly wrong, so you had morality and justice on your side. While children is a good moral issue, the whole are is underfined, and you work and challenge by being very specific. We continue to spend time in HEW, but we now learn the process of the Office of Management and Budget."
"Is it challenging?" she says, repeating the question, and then turning her head out the window toward Dupont Circle, itself a symbol of the energy and community of the last decade. "Does it take a courage? Yes, one of patience and persistence. In the '60s you needed a physical courage, you didn't know when it was all going to end. But now it takes grip, the courage of the folk in Mississippi, who keep on when everybody else fails by the wayside. The poor folk of the South have it, and I hope I have it."
As a doctrine, caring predates her work in the civil rights movement, right back to the example of her parents. Her father, a minister, named the youngest of his five children after Marian Anderson, teaching "you never need to be the first this or that but only to help." (Today, her mother, 75 years old, operates a foster-care home for the elderly.)
At Spelman College, Marian Wright was president of the student body, and joined the other college leaders to draft an "Appeal for Human Rights" that caused the black and white city fathers to take the student activists seriously. As she picketed federal facilities, she was also influenced by liberal professors, like Howard Zinn. After Spelman, she went to Yale University Law School, spending much of her free time in Mississippi, and returned there to work for four years. She was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar.
Somewhere along the line Mademoiselle magazine singled her out as "one of the four most exciting women in American." Now she says, of all the times she was called "outstanding," or somthing similar, "I never was impressed. That wasn't my contribution."
Looking back, she says, her advocacy of children was most influenced by her work in Mississippi, where she helped establish the Head Start program. "I knew the ball game of the '60s wasn't going to last. And some of us were a little more anticipatory. But I wouldn't be as well prepared for today if I hadn't been through, among many other places, Bennettaville, Atlanta and Mississippi."