Marian Wright Edelman Delivers Annual Marx Lecture | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Marian Wright Edelman Delivers Annual Marx Lecture

Children in the United States are hungry. Some are homeless. Some are being abused. There are 12 million of them that need our help-even more now than they did before, said Marian Wright Edelman, TC's seventh Virginia and Leonard Marx lecturer.

Children in the United States are hungry. Some are homeless. Some are being abused. There are 12 million of them that need our help-even more now than they did before, said Marian Wright Edelman, TC's seventh Virginia and Leonard Marx lecturer.

Edelman was introduced to an audience that filled Horace Mann Auditorium by TC President Arthur Levine and the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child and Parent Development Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy Sharon Lynne Kagan.

"What makes this a big occasion," said Levine of this year's lecturer, "is that Marian Wright Edelman is a leader in American education and a staunch advocate for children in both good times and bad."

"So many all over the globe are suffering, but this is a time to change things for the better," said Edelman, who was at a meeting with various religious leaders on the morning of the September 11th attacks. "People can work together to weave a fabric of community that will build a just society for children."

Edelman, who has spent her entire professional life helping children, is the founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund. Under her leadership, the Fund has become the nation's strongest voice for children and families.

"We must build a world in which light shines over darkness and tolerance drives out hatred and bigotry," she said. "As the President promised to leave no child behind, we will work with him and other leaders to transform those words into reality."

One way to transform this into reality is new comprehensive legislation called The Movement to Leave No Child Behind, proposed by the Children's Defense Fund, a range of child advocacy networks and members of Congress.

The Movement to Leave No Child Behind aims to cover every aspect of children's lives. It will ensure that every child and his or her parents have comprehensive health insurance. It covers the expansion of food programs to end hunger, she said. It specifies that every child should be able to read by the fourth grade and can graduate from school able to succeed at work and in life. It asks for decent affordable housing to give children a place called home. Above all, the Act seeks to protect all children from neglect, abuse, and violence.

"The bill is so comprehensive because children don't come in pieces," said Edelman. "They live in families and communities who need to be able to support them."

Now is a time of political transition, challenge and opportunity in this new millennium, she said. There has been unprecedented prosperity and a projected $5.6 trillion federal budget surplus.

Her vision in the months ahead is to do what it takes to meet the needs of children and their parents by building on the strengths and sense of fairness of the American people. "Learning from the best public and private ideas and successes we can move forward to a renewed commitment to all of our children," she said.

"We've cracked genetic code, we walked on the moon, we can transmit information faster than we can digest it," said Edelman. "But, can we figure out how to teach each child to read by the fourth grade?"

Society needs to think about changing the rules, new questions, new opportunities in "a churning new world order." Edelman asked, "Who will gain and who will be left
behind? We want to make our leaders change the debate from ending welfare to ending
poverty as we know it," said Edelman to the cheering crowd. "We need to change the culture of bureaucracy to prevent children's problems in the first place," she said. "We can do better-we need to renovate the whole house, room by room-and then we can move forward."

In order to enact the Bill, she proposed a lobbying plan. One aspect dates back to 1964 when teams of women-of all races-went to Mississippi every Wednesday to bear witness for racial justice and to build bridges between people across income and
racial lines. Each person made a commitment to return home and tell their communities what they saw and what could be done.

This plan, called "Wednesdays in Washington and Back Home," would use the same tactics to help the suffering children in the Movement to Leave No Child Behind.

"We've got to pester them until they hear. I hope that when Wednesday comes up, they'll say, 'It's Wednesday, what do those people want?'" she said. "We need to hold them accountable."

In addition to "Wednesdays," Edelman said that she and her supporters will use every way possible to raise people's awareness about children's needs. Some other ways are radio and print media campaigns, town meetings, and study circles. Also, coalition building, non-violence and media skills training to build a critical mass of effective spokespeople and advocates will be an ongoing and central part to the campaign.

She charged teachers with the responsibility of seeing that children's needs are met and to train a new generation of leaders. She feels that next to parenting, teaching is one the most important jobs.

"It's important to have excellence in the classroom," said Edelman. "If you don't believe all children can succeed, then please do something else."

She closed with "A 21st Century Prayer for Children," that urges parents, teachers, and other role models to raise children who care. She hopes that society will not raise a new generation of children "with more and more knowledge and less and less imagination and appreciation for the magic of life that cannot be quantified or computerized."

Edelman, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, began her career in the mid-60's when, as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1986, she moved to Washington D.C. as counsel for the Poor People's Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began organizing before he died. She also founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children's Defense Fund. For two years, she served as the Director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University.

She chaired the Board of Trustees at Spelman College from 1976 to 1987. She was the first woman elected by the alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation where she served from 1971-1977. She has received many honorary degrees and awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime achievement awards for her writings.

Published Thursday, May. 16, 2002