Marian Edelman: defending the rights of children

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, is recognized as a leading advocate and lobbyist for the rights of children. A graduate of Yale Law School, she cuts a figure of authority in her conservative blue suit. Her oversize glasses dominate her face, moving forcefully with each tilt of her head as she discusses the state of the American child, the state of the American family.

But she remembers a day 13 years ago when, as a civilrights activist lawyer in Mississippi, she met a group of young people the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Her concern was to warn them to stay away from the looting and the rioting in the streets. "It may ruin your future," she told them.

"Lady, why should I listen to you?" one boy responded. "Lady, I ain't got no future."

That day -- April 5, 1968 -- and that boy's question have stayed fresh in her mind. "I had no children of my own at the time," she recalls, "but I looked at the boy and asked myself, 'What shall I tell my children when I have some of my own?'"

Taking this question seriously has been the story of her life ever since. Between 1968 and 1973 Mrs. Edelman worked as a director of the Harvard Center for Law and Education while her husband, Peter B. Edelman, also a lawyer, served as vice-president at the University of Massachusetts. But since 1973, when the Edelmans moved to Washington, she has devoted herself to the Children's Defense Fund -- to answering by political action the chalenge of that boy 13 years ago, and the question she asked herself.

The youngest daughter among five children of a black Baptist minister, the mother now of three sons, ages 11, 10, and 6, she says: "I still ask myself the same question, 'What shall I tell my children?'"

Her final answer remains: There is no final answer. "People look for the quick fix," she says. "There can be no quick fix, no instant solution when we're dealing with the future of our children."

Mrs. Edelman recites statistics as rapid-fire as young people chant today's punk rock lyrics and rap routines. "The old-fashioned two-parent family is disappearing," she says. "Less than half the nation's black children live with both parents."

In a world of broken families, in a world of daily violence, the children are reacting predictably: "They hustle. They grow street wise. They try to overcome."

Her voice swells as she adds: "And this is not limited to those in poverty. It's spreading to the middle class."

"Clearly there's still racism in this society," she continues, developing the theme of her latest book, "Portrait of Inequality: Black and White Children in America."

"People were gung ho for civil rights in the '60s, and some legislative victories were achieved. Then people tired in the '70s. Now that the '80s are here and blacks have a few affirmative action jobs, people think blacks are doing OK -- maybe even too well. So the poor and the minorities become scapegoats for the nation's economic problems."

This is a mistake in self-interest, Mrs. Edelman believes: "Once ghetto people and suburban whites lived in separate worlds. But today, what helps black families helps all families."

In today's world the troubled child cannot be segregated, just as the troubled child's problems cannot be segregated. "A troubled child," she notes, "could mean a drug or alcohol problem, a teen-age pregnancy, even a suicidal tendency. No agency, including The Children's Defense Fund, can do it all."

Mrs. Edelman claims membership in the "American dream family," enjoying an income that "permits us to ride above the terror of poverty."

Her current interests reflect her family life as a child in her native Bennettsville, S.C.

"I like what may daddy did with me," she says. "He took me everywhere. So I take each of my boys on a trip with me once a year. This year one will go to Atlanta, one to Chicago, and the other to New York City. My parents knew each child as if he or she were the only one. I try to do the same thing with my own."

Her boys visit the office occasionally. "And so do children of my staff members," she adds. "Actually, we need more space. When we get it, we plan to set up a child care program at the office. We already operate a flexible office on flextime. We do not divorce our office from our families."

Mrs. Edelman tries to be diligent in her private as well as her public life: "I don't wish to be a mother who works around the clock for other people's children and lets her own go to pot."

She counters a question that spells doubt: "Certainly I cook."

Mrs. Edelman prepares breakfast every morning --when she is at home -- and all meals on weekends. "I'm the daughter of a Baptist preacher," she declares, almost in the tone of the pulpit. "Of course I had to learn to take care of the house, to prepare good meals -- to meet and deal with other people.

"My boys are learning how to do for themselves. They can cook. They can do work around the house. They can do odd jobs in my office. They are useful!"

But Mrs. Edelman concedes: "The housekeeper cleans up every day, and she takes care of the children. Frankly, I cannot imagine how an inner city woman with three and more children makes it in a dilapidated apartment, in a neighborhood where her children have no place to play. And how does she make it with no money? And no partner? How does she do it?"

To the end, Mrs. Edelman is a woman who asks herself questions with no easy answers.

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