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Marian Wright Edelman has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional career. Hello I'm Roger Wilkins on today's program we'll talk with Ms Edelman founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. In 1971 Time magazine named her one of America's 200 young leaders. She began her campaign for children in the mid 60s when as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar She directed the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the NAACP in Jackson Mississippi. Marian Cullen as somebody become a leader. It's funny to ask you that question we've known each other and so long been friends for so long worked for so long. But. Where did it start with you. I think it started at birth. In many ways I think when becoming the leader in part by grace but also by example and by the luck of the adult role models you have around you and I think that the first leaders that I knew were my parents who my daddy was a minister as medicine my mother in fact ran the church raise the
money for the church went at it coulda made it without her. But I grew up with people who took responsibility for seeing that things were better in ones own family when my daddy's sister died or got wittered you know he brought her to our hometown with all of her kids when after my dad died and his great aunt died my mother brought her to take care of him. They were two people who when they saw the need to separate tried to respond to mono black homes for the aged in my hometown so they started one across the street and made all of us work and cook and clean serve real black kids couldn't go and sit at a lunch counter so daddy built you know a little canteen around the church and a skating rink and so they were people who didn't wait around when they saw a problem and asked Why doesn't somebody do something they always said well what can I do. But they were not alone. And when the ordinary people or you go to other people. So you learn by example what kinds of things they say to you. And even if they were all always clear that the segregated
the segregated South was not about us it was about other people and wanted to be very clear that as children of God because we were religious that nobody could look down on us. And so that we always have that sense of who we were that sense of person and that sense of relationship to something bigger than than than ourselves. Secondly you know we talked a lot as a family about what life was about about service or about helping other people and they always made clear that those of us who had an education and there was never a time when all the right children didn't know they were going to go off and go to college and never heard of we weren't. But that purpose of college was to get to give something back to somebody else and that message was reinforced in college at Spelman by the Dr. Maizes in the Monica Johnsons and the Howard Thurman is in the mind of the king who you know the whole point was if you're here and you're privileged and you get that education would you go out and you change the world and make it better and so that ethic of service was just a very strong one both through example and by the constant
teachings before you got to college I diverted you. You started to say beyond your. Family there were other people in this film where we had an extended family. I mean the church was a pivotal part of our existence and it was a real leadership for him. I mean they really did take a tent pay attention to kids vacation bible school with a very well thought who thing which I still kind of miss Sunday school was the place where our teachers and public school taught but we were encouraged to participate in many many leadership roles from raising money to kind of participating in church services. We were always made to feel important. In fact when my daddy died not my mother died not too long ago I went through all the church records and saw when they were building the church all the wages and salaries for the people but they had children down there $1 to my brother who had worked to help the brick masons you know $2 to this young person but children were treated as partners and worked alongside adults in every aspect of their lives.
I went to visit the sick with my parents I went to visit the parishioners with my parents I was taught from a very early age to go out and deliver water food at Christmas when I was big enough to drive assuming responsibility of my older brother and brothers and sister and my parents to take people home to do things in the community were for right. So there were five children I am the youngest of five. But we all worked with adults and kind of getting through everyday life. And we studied and did homework with adults but but we were full pardon this was like a constant apprenticeship. The other thing that we're missing today is that there really was the whole communities sense that all children belong to them. And I still get so angry when the deacon would call dad and tell him where I was that I was someplace I shouldn't be or that you know the teacher would call Mama before I got home to say I didn't have my homework done as well as I should but they all felt responsible for children and were very clear about their expectations so we had this broad family of black support that
shut out or buffet the messages of the external segregated world that said we were important but our teachers said it wasn't so and so we didn't believe it. How big was this film how big was its black community when you were growing up. Oh the whole county is about 30000 Bennett's bail is five or six thousand of right black community was roughly half probably a little less than half. But you know I just got in fact today my sister just brought me a re-union from our black school with the with the 40 or 50 year history. But when I went back to her class reunion we discovered that almost all of us went off to college in my era. There were like seven or eight black leaders teachers preachers who kind of set the pace for the community doesn't take a whole lot of folks to leave and just you know went out and I look back and said you know where can I find today. You know so those seven or eight who will set the pace because everything is falling apart our kids are not going off to college and the rates in which we used to go all the health care system is terrible teenage pregnancy and drugs are
all down there and where is that core black leadership like the core black leadership that my daddy and so many others provide it but our teachers remember those paid attention to us and I went back about 20 years for you know and they all told stories about what each of us did in class they remember it was very personal and while the quality of education. In the segregated public schools weren't wonderful boarded they care and did they have consistent and high expectations for us and so that was the key that made the expectations high expectations and caring. I mean they really loved us and liked us and paid attention to us and so we always had this and that adult support at home and our schools and in our churches. So then you you get to you get to Spelman and you just reeled off. A bunch of great names that you go by them more slowly and and maybe tell a little bit about how each of these people touch you. Well because you know I often somehow feel I'm so lucky to have grown up to be who I
was in the air I'm sure you feel like this that I grew up because we had an extraordinary wealth of great people to guide us to and to teach us and to say we could change the world. And when I knew we had compulsory chapel at Spelman which I rebelled against every morning at 8 o'clock we had to go to chapel Monday through Friday we had to go to prayer meetings on Thursday afternoon and we had to go to chapel on Sunday and all the rebellion though I remember far more from those chapel services. Then I do them in my classes at Spelman because we did have Dr. Benjamin Mays who was the president of Morehouse who used to come and talk to the Spellman girls and tell us how to act and how to be and what was important in life. He would tell young man what it's like to be a man how to be a gentleman and how to sort of escort women and how to fold your haggard even beneath them and they taught me that. So it was the hidden value of the gentleman. But they shot the whole person it wasn't just about academics it was about a person. THIS AN AN And until they taught us what it was like to be a graceful and
caring adult. He was a great man. Dr. Martin Luther King was a regular part of our existence and came through. SPELLMAN chapel at a number of occasions Dr. Howard Thurman who was the eloquent dean of the chapel at Boston University was at Howard before but used to come through and preach to us Spellman girls Monica Johnson who goes back even earlier in my childhood in the as of the sting wish president of Howard but he used to come to South Carolina every year and he used to speak at the Columbia South Carolina auditorium which was a hundred miles from my hometown and dad are used to all of us children the car and we'd have to go hear Dr. jobs and he speak with three and a half to four women in a mission and I used to sleep through those sermons but I believe those that he didn't offer most of something got through. What we were exposed to all the great leaders about time Langston Hughes came to Spelman the great point that Langston Hughes came to my little town of been a spill and read poetry I
remember it as if it were yesterday. And I have a proudly autographed book from Langston Hughes when I was a child. Rowan Hayes and Marian Anderson who sang in our surroundings when I was young and one of the formative experiences not just back to childhood from Spellman was reading Mary McLeod Bethune because when I was a child and my dad he was very involved in going to college and I went to have dinner with her one night and I had never seen such a strong forceful woman it was the first time I ever heard the phrase a black of the bear the Sweet of the juice. But here this woman I don't know I was eight or nine years old and then a table talking about how she would go in and challenge segregation by going in the white hat places where they sew hats and try them on in the courts would go bananas and she would say do you know who I am I am Mary McLeod Bethune and I was just in thrall. I mean it was so that you know at Spelman to have all the great people you know Whitney Young was the dean of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University when I was a Spelman on the graduate Carl
Holdman taught at Clark College when I was at Spelman College and the combination of great known speak like Dr. King and Howard Thurman and all the great preachers walk through those chapels. Let me then take you from. All of this spectacular foundation to where you learned about service and the total ethic of service and the dignity of black community to becoming a leader as an individual person. I first met you in 1966. You were a young lawyer. You were full of passion and confidence and you were up for Mississippi but down in Mississippi you. Driving toward setting up a great model Head Start program.
How did you get the confidence to do what you did. Again I think it was built over time by those parents and those broader black community elders. When I grew up around black people who were confident about their faith confident about their purpose confident that one person could make a difference and there was never a time in my life however things got bad or when my siblings lives when we did not think that we could make a difference because we had black people adult black people making a difference in small and large ways in leadership comes in many different forms and doesn't always require education or money or special status and so we grew up with people who every day in their lives tried to make a difference and make life a little better for other people and so that kind of cumulative experience of moral and and example in leadership I think just became natural. And so that when we became adults trying to do something useful or to be like we were taught to be
I was sort of a logical extension I never thought consciously about doing what I'm doing today what my daddy and others taught me if you keep your eyes open and look around and try to follow the need and respond to that you will never be in for a loss for something to do. And that is proven true. Well you went on created something you didn't. Following any particular person's leadership style you just went out and did it. How'd that happen. I was following a neat I tried to do what I did get you. You do what you have to do at that moment to get done what has to be done. I mean when as I said about my parents there are no black homes for the ages they didn't say there's nothing we can do there start it work for you. They always found a way to provide a positive alternative and so it just never occurred to me. If something didn't existed you wouldn't try to build a path and make it exist. And I really don't get my jollies by taking on hard challenges and feeding out as black folk and figure it out for a long time is how to make a way out of no way. And when that
path becomes a highway I move on to try to find some new paths and that's always been extraordinary. And I've gone step by step and I didn't visit your children's defense fund. You know I sort of went down to Mississippi as a civil rights lawyer and it became clear that an era lawyer in was not going to do it that you couldn't be getting children into the segregated schools and saying that was the end of your job if those children were pushed off their plantations the next morning didn't have any food to eat didn't have a house to stay and didn't have any income to support them. And so if you really were going to make political and civil rights stick and mean something and change the lives that you had to put the social and economic underpinnings under those children and under those families which would enable them to exercise those political and civil rights. And so one thing logically led to another. And out of the headstart experience and getting mad running up and down to Washington to try to answer back some of the sternest. It became clear after a while that somebody needed to be in Washington to protect the rights of these poor parents
down in Mississippi to do what everybody says they ought to do is try to build a self-sufficient life for them and their children so I was just sort of the watch and research I've got to get out came up here to start the arson research project and so you know a lot of civil rights groups who are doing wonderful work. So as we were as you know engaging and principal setting litigation and trying to pass new legislation but unless somebody also paid a lot of attention to enforcing those laws to letting people know that those laws existed to monitoring the budget process to pushing the bureaucrats to to having an early alert system that we were not going to sort of get the maximum gains from what everybody is struggle for and that's when I moved to Washington met credibly sophisticated leaders like you and Card and others worked in the federal bureaucracy. And that's when I began to also understand the need for it and a ray of strategy is that there is no one way in which we are going to be able to bring about freedom. We've got a tried and multiple to a moment of a it's interesting leadership
style of yours you came out of a traditional civil rights organization the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And instead of deciding well we got to do something about children that grows out of my experience in Mississippi instead of saying well I'm going to the NAACP and saying let's establish this program in the NAACP or let's establish his program in the Urban League. You did differently. What was the impulse to make you just start off to your own organization. Well I guess it never occurred to me not to. Secondly I'm always looking for the most flexible creative way to move. And oftentimes it's easier to try to begin something a new rather than to try to convert the organized and so that you know when one is trying to figure out how to get to the next step in the most effective and easy way often that leads you to work outside of traditional institutions organizations. I mean for example I don't ever see myself
in a government context and I'm an instinctive outsider. And I guess I am instinctively independent as well and I like to kind of be creatively messy so it didn't occur to me to try to change what these groups were doing because they had important roles it was what I needed to build a new creative edge to supplement what they were doing and I thought that I would be more effective in that process. Do you have any doubts. I mean a lot of people. Have an idea but then to step into the void. Is so frightening. They pull back and the idea never gets accomplished. So since you have doubts you know I don't want to. This is not our. No it never occurred to me. I have some guard that was something had to be done. It was the need. It was the need that I was responding to and I guess I never thought about. I wasn't stablish in an organization I wasn't doing something I was responding to a knee of the Head Start programs
were being attacked. These poor people were struggling. You know they were being kicked off their land they were hungry and so it never occurred to me. But you don't fight as hard as you have to fight or to do something about it I didn't think organizationally I didn't think about you know doing something unusual and different. I simply was trying to help that group of poor people. And so in the sense that I didn't have a doubt I didn't think about it in terms of losing I've thought about it in terms of trying to make a difference to help that group of people. Again the tradition that I came from as a nobody to you had to wear that just so you have to try to get up each day and do the best you can and so that I've never kind of. I've never kind of thought ahead I really always tried to do what daddy told me to do which was to see how you can respond to that need that day and follow where it leads you. And so call up your friends and tell them what they can do. Oh that's absolutely right. I always deliberately always you're.
Well-led me this since we've now got you up through the Children's Defense Fund and we. Know what you do now. I'd like you to turn reflective for a minute. You talked about that wonderful thick rich community out of which you and so many other of our friends and colleagues emerged there was a segregated time and it had its disadvantages but it had its advantages to. Think a little bit about our community now and the leadership needs it has. Are we are we developing the kind of leaders that we need for this time. Do we need to protest pay more attention to developing leaders. Do you think.
Oh I think we need to pay a lot more attention to developing leaders and to develop a new generation of leaders. I worry a lot about the generational separation and the disconnectedness of middle class from poor black leadership. As for black leadership in communities all around this country I worry a lot about them. The lack of the kind of extended family that we had and so I I think that the 90s and those we face in this century going to be an extraordinarily challenging time. And I think that first we have got to begin to get the black community back in touch with the children. I think that we have abandoned millions of our children in particular those who are poor and we've been left behind and we live in a city where violence is rife and yet we have an extraordinary core of black middle class leadership how do we build bridges back so that we can become a whole community. Secondly you know we owe that
generation of young people the same kind of loving care and nurturance and tension that we got from Martin Luther King and from Whitney Young and from Carl home and that we had with you and with allow Carden and Sylvester I mean I missed so much that leadership family and support system which we are rebuilding. And I've always felt so lucky that I've have colleagues like you with whom I could share and and brainstorm but we need to pass that on to another generation. Third the ingredients of leadership today a much more complex. You know in one sense when I think about what leadership is I think it's vision. It's the ability to see a problem whole and break it down into manageable pieces for action and then to stick with a step by a systematic step seeing how that piece fits within where you want to go. But you know the tools of social change are not like they were in the 60s is not just about demonstration the remedies are much more complex. It requires a level of competence on data and on budgets and policy implementation that we were not
required to have when we were starting out trying to break down the legal barriers. And we have an obligation to share and teach those techniques of social change and the strategies and social change to the next generation so the bay can carry on where we leave all. And. Secondly I think we've got to go to another major transformation of what we view leadership to be today because as important as this as procedural and civil rights are the issues in the 90s really are about sort of giving people the substantive rights you know the health care and the childcare and the quality education and the housing and the jobs and and and and the you know if they are going to really be able to come into the mainstream of American society so that there has to be a broader supplemental creative edge of leadership to to build on what we've already accomplished and that is a major task today. Stick a pin in that. And but I want to go back to something else. You and
everyone else to whom I've talked about this starts by saying it was my parents your mother. You had three splendid boys. You also have influence on many young people my daughter included. What do you do as a parent and as a mentor of a young person for young people. What do you do specifically. Mentoring raising your children developing your young colleagues. Although I fail every day Roger I try to live what I preach. I try to be honest. I try to show them what I think a responsible adult and parent is. I can't teach them to read unless I read. Your daughter reads because you read and do read. I can't teach them how to share the money for others unless I do that because children do what we do not what we tell them to do some of the
things that I struggle to do is to try to be a decent honest caring committed person. I try to tell them the family's important by spending a lot of time with my family. But I also try to tell them that family in a narrow sense is not enough and that I can't do for them what I want to do for them unless I also try to do for other people's children because they've got to walk the streets they got. Participate in a world with a lot of children who have a whole lot less than they do and we live in a neighborhood in Washington where we have very little poverty a lot of affluence and arena right across town where we're sitting there. There are children who are living in third world conditions and I need to show them that they are related to those children and hopefully and I'm seeing the evidence for your daughter and through another generation of wonderful young people through my own children that they you know begin to pick up that because they want to live up to their parents expectations they want to affirm parents vision just as I still struggle here for my parents visions and those of the extend that I was a son so I guess the answer is I try to just
be as best I can. And I always try to keep growing. And I try to listen because they teach me as much as I learn I'm learning more of my own today about field organizing than I knew in the 60s and that's a pledge of what we need to have the communication and the interaction and the forums where we can sort of spend time together and learn from each other as I did when we were growing up. Weird. It's we're talking now about ourselves and our children. And I grew up in the movement. Our children grew up in the movement. What are we doing for those young black people who didn't grow up in the movement who either are of the first generation of their family to go to college or our sons and daughters of or even perhaps grandchildren of college educated middle class people for whom the struggle is not
as an acute an everyday part of life. Are we transmitting leadership use in service values to them effectively do you think. I don't think so and I think it's the biggest challenge facing the black community today. I mean our children don't have a sense of their history of their culture of what of the struggle it took to get them here. And that's why you and I have been talking about a black community crusade for children which will involve young people but which will involve black adults really involving themselves with all of our children and taking responsibility for all of our children. I mean there is no excuse in this town for black children being in foster care in the numbers in which we have the My mother and father took in 12 kids after I left home. We have got to create the opportunities now to get our children back in our churches and they're not coming. But to make those church programs meaningful for them we have got to find ways of teaching them their history and their background to Freedom Schools of folks schools or whatever. We have got to give them service opportunities and they are ready we had a meeting here power to
Washington's Leaders
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Marian Wright Edelman
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Host Roger Wilkins interviews Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund.
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Chicago: “Washington's Leaders; #203; Marian Wright Edelman,” 1992-01-31, WHUT, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 25, 2022,
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APA: Washington's Leaders; #203; Marian Wright Edelman. Boston, MA: WHUT, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from