Marian Wright Edelman taps the conference table sharply and repeatedly when asked about the debate in Congress over cutting food stamps. She begins to use words like “shameful,” and wonders who raised “these people.” “These people up here,” she says, looking toward Capitol Hill from her nearby office, “and you’ll have to excuse me — I’m going to try not to use bad words — are cutting the lifelines of child growth and cutting off food for hungry people and extremely poor people. I just don’t know where they come from.” Edelman’s soft face and round eyes become sharp, her lips purse. “Who are we and where is the outcry?” she asks. “How do you have this mercenary level of greed?” It’s a familiar dynamic — Marian Wright Edelman vs. Congress, Marian Wright Edelman vs. the White House, Marian Wright Edelman vs. Washington — that has been playing out for more than four decades.
Forty years after founding the Children’s Defense Fund, which advocates for federal and state resources for children, Edelman is still at work in the fund’s red brick building on E Street NW, displaying at 74 the same passion she had in 1967, when she was a 27-year-old civil rights attorney leading Sen. Robert F. Kennedy through the Mississippi Delta. She took him to meet sharecroppers and watched him try for five minutes to poke and tickle a listless baby. The hungry child did not respond.
That moment and others in the long life of the Children’s Defense Fund will be remembered at a celebration Monday night at the Kennedy Center. But Edelman is more focused on the present, the now, the ongoing debate over food stamps. It is a “moral outrage,” she says while sitting in a first-floor conference room at the fund’s headquarters. House Republicans, vowing to rein in spending, recently passed a bill that would cut $4 billion and 3.8 million recipients from the food stamp program next year.
The cyclical debate in Washington no longer surprises Edelman. She seems energized by it. Her rate of speech quickens when she talks about Congress. She starts tapping again.
“The fact is that there may be 30 laws that are on the books that weren’t on the books when we started. Look at Head Start. . . . Of course, they are trying to take that away,” she says. “I am proud of all these laws, but I’m really proud of all the things that didn’t get repealed. Most of it is quiet scut work. There’s no press conference.”
An original soldier in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Edelman advocated for construction of the “social safety net” or “welfare state,” depending on one’s political perspective. The Children’s Defense Fund had a hand in the passage of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, which passed in 1997 and expanded health insurance coverage for children. The organization also pushed for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, intended to curb the number of children languishing in foster care.
“I have sympathy for her perspective, and she’s a very good-hearted person,” says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an author of the 1996 reforms to the welfare system that cut benefits and required many poor recipients of federal aid to find jobs. “But she was unduly pessimistic about the way that reform would operate.”
Over the years, Edelman has gained a reputation for being inflexible — and she is the first to admit it is well deserved.
“I’m inflexible about children being killed by guns, of course,” she says. “I am totally intolerant and inflexible about children going hungry in the richest nation on earth . . . about children being homeless, about children being in schools that don’t teach them how to learn.
“If that is inflexible, yeah, I’m inflexible.”
Edelman’s vision for children in America was born of the civil rights movement and her work with Martin Luther King Jr. as counsel for his Poor People’s Campaign, which brought impoverished Americans to Washington in a protest for assistance. But her life’s mission was seeded by her parents in small-town Bennettsville, S.C. Her father was a preacher, the kind who did not raise his voice in the pulpit. Her mother adopted a dozen foster children after Edelman and her siblings were grown.
Marian Wright, who was named after the great African American contralto Marian Anderson, went on to Spelman College, the upper-crust black women’s university in Atlanta. She became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the civil rights protests of the era. On scholarship, she traveled abroad for a year in Europe and the Soviet Union.
She sent postcards back to Bennettsville.
“For me as a kid, that was one of the most exciting things,” says her niece Deborah Wright, who is president of Carver Federal Savings Bank in New York. “Her handwriting is consistent with the family curse. My father would help me translate. The cards were from Paris, Vietnam or wherever she was. Living in such a small town, it gave us a moment to do a geography lesson.”
Edelman’s horizons also expanded through conversations with the liberal historian Howard Zinn, who was among her professors at Spelman. He encouraged her to apply to law school, and she was accepted to Yale.
“Howard Zinn, I swear, must have filled out my application,” Edelman says with a laugh. “I didn’t know what law school was. But Lord, I got in and I hated every minute of it.”
A trip to Mississippi gave her inspiration to keep going.
“I knew black folks needed lawyers and white folks wouldn’t take them” as clients, she says.
After law school ,she interned with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, training under Jack Greenberg, who succeeded Thurgood Marshall, and helped to set up offices in Jackson and Memphis.
“Once you won your case, you had to make sure they had something to eat,” she says of her clients then.
Her advocacy on behalf of the poor and hungry people she met in the Delta brought her in contact with a young Jewish lawyer named Peter Edelman, who was working for then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.). Peter Edelman had gone to Mississippi to do research for the reauthorization of an economic opportunity act. He had been given Marian’s name by an anti-poverty activist he knew.
“I called her and said I was coming down,” he recalls.
She said she was busy writing a brief.
He said, “Well, you have to eat dinner.”
Peter Edelman and Marian Wright married in July 1968 in Virginia, making them the first interracial couple to marry in the state since Loving v. Virginia , the Supreme Court case that threw out laws barring interracial marriage. The wedding was officiated by William Sloane Coffin Jr., a clergyman and peace activist, and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, for whom Peter Edelman had clerked.
Three sons and four grandchildren later, they both lead active lives in Washington policy circles. They are not the retiring kind, says Peter, who teaches at Georgetown Law.
“She’s definitely always moving at warp speed, except when she’s not,” he says of his wife. “She takes care to stop all the engines and sit still for some minutes every day and to pray and meditate, and so I think that’s the way she makes it possible to continue moving at a very, very fast pace.”
The honoree at the Children’s Defense Fund anniversary celebration Monday night at the Kennedy Center is Hillary Rodham Clinton. The woman who would go on to be first lady, a senator and a presidential candidate was Edelman’s intern in 1970. In her autobiography, Clinton credits Edelman with directing her to “lifelong advocacy for children.”
“I love her because she always did whatever you needed her to do,” Edelman says. “She went to migrant camps down in Florida. Then when she said she was going to leave us to go marry this fellow from Arkansas — I said, ‘Who?’ ”
Clinton later chaired the Children’s Defense Fund board and visited the organization when she became first lady. Edelman laughs at the memory of Clinton’s visit. The shutters fell off the old building occupied by the fund, scaring the Secret Service.
Their long friendship frayed publicly in the mid-1990s, when it became clear that President Bill Clinton would sign the welfare reform legislation. Both Edelmans publicly sounded alarms, saying they did not believe the changes to the program would effectively put people to work while cutting off their benefits. Peter Edelman, who was then assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned his post and wrote an article calling the law “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.” Marian Edelman also wrote an article condemning the law.
The breach was ultimately repaired, and the Clintons and the Edelmans continued to see each other socially after the policy disagreement. Near the end of his second term as president, Bill Clinton awarded Marian Wright Edelman the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Hillary Clinton, who could not be reached for comment, has said that the fight over welfare reform was the moment that she knew she had left advocacy for politics. Politics is no arena for a purist — a term that would more aptly describe Marian Edelman.
Still, Edelman says she is proud of Clinton’s work on behalf of children.
“She’s been a leader with staying power,” Edelman says. “I feel very lucky to have had her in all of these different iterations. I hope she’s not through.”
Outside of Washington, Edelman has spent the past 20 years working on projects that give her a different kind of energy. The home for that work is Haley Farm.
Purchased in 1994 by the Children’s Defense Fund, the farm was once owned by Alex Haley, author of “Roots.” With private donations from Leonard and Louise Riggio of Barnes & Noble and others, it is now a retreat center in the foothills of the Tennessee mountains. An old barn on the farm was redesigned as a library by famed architect Maya Lin and named for Langston Hughes.
There, Edelman has worked with others to dream up and refine initiatives such as Freedom Schools, a summer and after-school enrichment program that “helps children fall in love with reading, increases their self-esteem, and generates more positive attitudes toward learning,” according to the fund.
Another fund initiative, the Black Community Crusade for Children, brings together top thinkers in education, social services and policy to deal specifically with obstacles that black children face at disproportionate rates, including poverty and illiteracy.
“She understands the seriousness of what we are trying to do,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, who works on anti-poverty programs in California and participated in the crusade meetings. “She knows that every year we wait for change, children are getting a year older and more babies are born.”
It was through conversations at Haley Farm that activist Geoffrey Canada developed the idea for the Harlem Children’s Zone, the intensive anti-poverty initiative he started to “provide a full network of services for an entire neighborhood from birth to college.”
“I think Marian thinks we’ve gotten soft,” he says. “People think dealing with the craziness on Capitol Hill is like, ‘Oh, how horrible.’ She says: ‘No, there was real horror. When I was going through Mississippi, there was real fear and there was fear for your life.’ She thinks we have forgotten some of those sacrifices. She feels a deep commitment to make sure those sacrifices have not been in vain. That means you fight and you fight as long as you’ve got a breath in you.”
Edelman wears two pendants around her neck that she sometimes rubs while talking. One is a portrait of Harriet Tubman. The other is of Sojourner Truth. On the reverse are quotes from the women, who lived during slavery.
Truth: “If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.”
Tubman: “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
On a recent afternoon, Edelman shares a revelation she had while reading the Bible in her quiet time.
“For those who read Matthew 25 — and I read Matthew 25 for many, many years and somehow missed this — it is about nations being called into account. [It reads] ‘What did you feed me when I was hungry?’ All great nations face the test of morality and pleasing God. What about the orphan and the widow?
“We could care for them,” she says, rushing off to another meeting, “and still have more than enough for those who have more than everyone else.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.