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Cover story

Get out of the way

NCR Staff

There’s a new movement a-borning. Right now its manifestation is Marian Wright Edelman tapping the tabletop. Not hard, but emphatically. Soon enough she and other mothers and grandmothers may be knocking heads together and taking to the streets “if we have to.”

Movements are born when the system doesn’t work. And for more than a quarter-century the now 60-year-old founder of the Children’s Defense Fund has worked every angle of the U.S. system on behalf of America’s children.

Despite building a nationwide organization (10 state offices), working with Congress and the establishment, seeing regulations written and laws passed, pushing or wooing or fighting with liberals and conservatives to press for changes in the nation’s priorities for its kids, Edelman fears a hollow success -- and won’t settle for it.

“This country is morally dead,” said the 1960s civil rights lawyer with the same smilingly fierce determination that faced down Mississippi bigotry in court and in the street. “We’re going to hell unless we take care of our kids. How we deal with children’s lives is the moral Achilles’ heel of this nation.”

“I think and I will say to you,” she said, again rapping the tabletop in her 25 E Street N.W. office, “that even though over the last 25 years we have tried to talk about the inclusiveness movement, across race and class and every discipline, it is time for the mothers and the grandmothers to say to the men in power: ‘Get out of the way. We will no longer permit the public killing of our children. We will no longer talk of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on Star Wars anti-missile systems when kids are dying like flies. We will no longer see our children treated unfairly -- whether it’s health care or child care.’

“The challenge is how do you make people treat our children right. It’s going to take a movement,” she said. “Perhaps we should have done it 10 years ago.”

This wasn’t grandstanding. Marian Wright matured (see accompanying story) during the civil rights movement as a 20-year-old preacher’s child at Atlanta sit-ins, as the potential scholar of 19th-century Russian literature who instead went to Yale law school so she could go back to Mississippi and work for its voteless 915,000 blacks -- citizens without rights.

Now, for children, the system has failed. Again.

“We’ve tried every method,” she said. “We have issued hundreds of reports documenting for this good, sensitive democratic, decent nation -- tell them the truth and they’ll do the right thing. OK?

“I think the issue of building a movement, laying the seeds of a movement, [means] moving outside the traditional incremental box of how we go about change.

“It’s more difficult than in the ’60s. You don’t have an enemy on the other side. You’re taking on these extraordinarily powerful industries, each of which is different, because you’ve got to deal with child health, child care, child education, child lives.”

Edelman is gearing up to shift tactics, even “if it means taking on our friends.” Said the mother of three sons, “A lot of our friends are running bad school systems. [They] see their jobs as more important than educating children. A lot of our friends are doctors and nurses more concerned about reimbursement rates than getting children a healthy start -- our friends who somehow think that keeping themselves in power is more important than helping poor children get a chance in life.”

Edelman, though she grew up a preacher’s daughter in segregated rural Greenville, S.C., speaks (and writes) with deep feeling about her own chances in life thanks to her parents, who sought out the poor (The Measure of Our Success: a Letter to My Children and Yours, Beacon Press, 1992). “Finding another child in my room or a pair of shoes gone was far from unusual.”

She speaks (as she writes) of the support that comes from an all-pervading deeply spiritual life (Guide My Feet, Beacon Press, 1995), support from the strong black women who were her mentors (Lanterns, Beacon Press, 2000), from the family and community dedication to education that saw her through Spelman College and Yale law school.

In its 26 years, the Children’s Defense Fund has undertaken an impressive range of activities and has published an important series of reports.

In the 1970s, “Children Out of School in America” documented the 2 million children absent from classrooms; “Children Without Homes” documented a half-million children living away from their families; in the 1980s, the first Children’s Defense Budget and reports on maternal and child health, family economic plight, child care needs. (The at-times ideological Edelman had some fierce scraps even with liberal Congressional allies. Daycare was one such battle.)

In the 1990s, Children’s Defense Fund reports focused on topics such as the safety of child-care, children in rural America and the costs of child poverty.

The political battles for children’s rights -- in state capitals and national agencies -- were numerous and are unceasing.

Organizationally, with a $10 million-plus, mainly foundation-supported budget, more than 100 employees, the Children’s Defense Fund has created or partnered child watch coalitions, child-care networks, Stand for Children chapters, and 10 state offices. The first opened in Mississippi in 1974.

Is there a danger that the Children’s Defense Fund is a cult around Marian Wright Edelman?

“One has to constantly watch out for idolatry of self, the idolatry of work.” she replied. “I remember Thomas Merton a lot as he’d say: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know if I’m really doing your will or mine. Or someone else’s. So I say, am I willing to let go?’ “

The answer appears to be yes.

“If we don’t have three to five people in this institution [she’s the president] to succeed me in the next five years, we’ve failed. If we don’t have in every state office somebody who can step up in every department, then we really haven’t done our job.

“I guess [this is] where I am with God right now, trying to get the faith and trust to let go. I’ve done the best I can. I’ll continue to do the best I can but I’ve got to leave the results to him. I have to wait on him to send whatever resources and whatever visions and whatever strength is needed.

“You know, there have been many dark nights, but he’s never let us down so far.”

For its first 15 years, the Children’s Defense Fund never had a public relations person, so insistent was Edelman that others take the credit for whatever was achieved. It is only in the past decade that the nation at large has been made aware that Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund -- whose motto is “Leave No Child Behind” -- exist.

For every American child, Edelman wants what she had: caring people, health care and education. She’s always had prayer, now she contemplates new forms of action.

“As I have grown older and wearier trying to help get our nation to put children first,” she writes in Guide My Feet, “and become more worried about my own and other people’s children growing up in an America where moral values and common sense and family and community values are disintegrating, I pray more and more.”

She’s finally accepted that, unprovoked, the United States will not deliver. It will take, she said, what his four friends did for the lame man in Mark’s Gospel.

“The crowd out there was mighty loud,” said Edelman, “in front of doors, like Congress and the administration. You go there and stand there and get in line with your little request. But somehow the friends never get before the Seat of Grace -- that’s wrong,” she said, correcting herself. “There’s no grace in Washington.

“But the friends didn’t give up. They decided they’d go to higher ground, climb up on the roof, and let him down inside.” A smiling Edelman reached for her glasses and continued, emphasizing with knocks on the tabletop, “It’s time for us to get to higher ground, get on the roof and knock some shingles off and insist that whatever has to be done gets done.”

It will take what Edelman calls the “critical mass” of numbers. Adding to the mothers and grandmothers, the movement will pull in “the young people” like the 2000 new generation young black leaders, trained by the Children’s Defense Fund through its Black Community Crusade for Children. Another possible point of cohesiveness for the movement is the links among people with common experiences in Clinton, Tenn. In 1994, the Children’s Defense Fund bought Roots author Alex Haley’s 126-acre farm there as a spiritual renewal, leadership development, intergenerational, interracial and interdisciplinary communications center.

If a sharp focus, unlimited passion, determination, courage and organization skills are essential to creating a movement, Edelman has those. More, her ire and fire come not from observable Defense Fund failures but from the harsh awareness of how little has altered despite an incredible record of cumulative Children’s Defense Fund successes.

And then there are guns. “We will no longer permit the killing of our children. We lose 84 pre-school children a year to guns, 4,000 kids a year. We sit here and we protect guns rather than children. It’s absolutely unbelievable that guns are the only unregulated consumer product in this country. Two hundred million guns.”

She’s still smiling, and banging the table, giving that emphasis to each new phrase.

“We need to get more and more people to understand that you can be No. 1 in everything, but if you really can’t walk in your neighborhood and if you can’t hold your family together and the children have no spiritual anchors -- what’s it all for?”

She paused. Perhaps to look into the future.

“I think the next five years are really a time of reckoning for this country,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000