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A voice for the poor in D.C.


“South Carolina is my home state, and I am the aunt, granddaughter, daughter and sister of Baptist ministers. Service was as essential a part of my upbringing as eating and sleeping and going to school. The church was a hub of black children’s social existence, and caring black adults were buffers against the segregated and hostile world that told us we weren’t important.”

Marian Wright Edelman wrote that testament in The Measure of Our Success (1992), 30-plus years after she entered that hostile world of Atlanta sit-ins and tested the strength of her upbringing.

The strength was there. And has remained.

Dr. Martin Luther King had already started on the long march for civil rights. In Atlanta after the sit-ins, the young Marian Wright volunteered at the local office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, compiling complaints from people who sought legal help.

“I had never thought about law school until that day or week when I realized the help they were seeking,” Edelman recalled. “Most white lawyers would not take civil rights cases for black folk, and black folk didn’t have money.”

In 1960, 21 year-old Marian Wright was already eyeing Mississippi, which was where Robert Moses and other Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee volunteers were working.

Mississippi had four black lawyers, three of whom had not gone to law school but studied on their own. Wright went to Yale Law School and then to Mississippi “to find a way to continue the civil rights movement and provide a tool that was needed. It was only Mississippi that kept me in law school.”

She was constantly active -- in the Northern Student Movement, a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee support group, and in civil rights issues. She was living in the home of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Yale chaplain and later well-known social activist, as the Freedom Rides to the South from Wesleyan and Yale began.

She graduated in 1963, worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for a year, wrote briefs defending sit-ins for Supreme Court cases and, by the time she went to Mississippi ahead of the 1964 Summer Project, knew many of the new breed civil rights lawyers.

The voter registration drive among Mississippi blacks was one more catalyst for the expanding civil rights movement.

When the Summer Project ended, Wright stayed. A deeper, starker reality confronted her. “The people they’d tried to register to vote didn’t have anything to eat, didn’t have a place to live. That made the first real point to me -- that without social and economic underpinnings, the right to vote does not mean as much as it need be.

“When I had [black] desegregation or public accommodations plaintiffs, the next day their names were up on the [local] telegraph poles and they didn’t have jobs.”

“Somebody had to do something about it,” she said. And for her the concept of “public policy lawyering” became a reality, “to really make sure that people got help, not just a legal right that could be Pyrrhic. It really embebbed itself in my mind.”

Then Mississippi refused to take the Head Start program.

Wright rolled up her sleeves and kept them rolled up. The state wouldn’t apply for Head Start, so civil rights and church groups combined into the Child Development Group of Mississippi and they applied.

In retaliation, Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss), No. 2 on the all-controlling Senate Appropriations Committee, held up the entire War on Poverty by refusing to move on the Office of Economic Opportunity appropriation.

“I began,” said Edelman, three decades later, “to understand there are no friends in politics.”

Head Start did get to Mississippi, created 3,000 jobs “independent of the plantation structure.” Edelman “had gotten a second big lesson: The poor needed a political presence in Washington to answer back to or anticipate the political attacks of powerful politicians and other powerful interests.”

Soon she was doing the Mississippi-Washington commute, defending Head Start. The judges would always ask, what’s the Justice Department’s position on this? What’s HEW’s position? (The U.S. Health, Education and Welfare Department was predecessor to today’s U.S. Health and Human Services Department.)

Then came Edelman’s third lesson: the realization that to “affect statewide change, we had to affect federal enforcement of school desegregation guidelines.”

She said she resents “people who talk about either local empowerment strategies or federal litigation strategies. You need them all.”

Because of what was learned through Head Start in Mississippi, hunger became a big issue. Issues mounted; so did the work. After hunger hearings were held in Washington, Edelman convinced U.S. Sens. Jacob Javits and Richard Clark to see for themselves. They did, and “happily” New York Sen. Robert Kennedy went with them.

For Kennedy, meeting, touching, talking to Mississippi’s hungry children was a defining political moment.

In Kennedy’s entourage was his legislative assistant, Peter B. Edelman, today a professor at Georgetown Law School. (Edelman was one of two lawyers who resigned in protest from the Clinton administration when the president signed the Welfare Reform Bill into law.)

Wright and Edelman wed in 1968, creating a bi-racial, interreligious family whose three sons say they have had “Baptist bar mitzvahs.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, meanwhile, had created the Poor People’s Campaign. Wright anchored herself in the nation’s capital, and with Field Foundation money created the Washington Research Project to study how to mount an effective Washington-based national voice for the nation’s poor and minorities.

The project, in 1973, gave birth to the Children’s Defense Fund.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000