Speaking to, and for, Nation's Kids
Marian Wright Edelman addresses youths - and Congress - on values, service, reading. CHILDREN'S DEFENSE FUND PRESIDENT
NEW YORK — THE four older children in her close-knit South Carolina family had already left home. Marian Wright Edelman, then about 12, and her Baptist-minister father began to read in companionable silence before the fireplace for a time every evening.
One night she inserted a forbidden "True Confessions" magazine inside the Life magazine she was pretending to read. Her father, wise to the move, asked her to read it aloud and comment on its value.
"I've not had any appetite for `True Confessions' since!" she writes emphatically in "The Measure of Our Success." It is a slender new book of recollections and inspirational advice addressed to all children, but especially to her three sons: Ezra who is 17 and will go to Yale in the fall, Jonah who is 21 and a senior at Yale, and Joshua, who at 22 is a Harvard graduate teaching history at Milton Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts.
Mrs. Edelman, whose husband, Peter, is a law professor at Georgetown University, is best known in public life as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar and, for the last 19 years, as founder-president of the nonprofit Children's Defense Fund, widely considered the nation's most powerful lobbying and research voice for children on issues ranging from nutrition and health care to child abuse and education. The fund's work was considered a major force in Congress's adoption of a child-care bi ll last year. In her book, Mrs. Edelman moves easily from advice to her own children to advice to Congress and the White House on what policy changes would best meet the basic needs of all children. "Most other industrialized nations don't have the child poverty we have," she says. Yet the book's main message and examples are personal.
She showed her sons an outline of the book first and asked their permission to write it. "I wanted to say to them, `Here's what matters in the world,' " she explained in a recent interview here. "It turns out that they had heard all these things before," she said with a smile, "but you want to make sure - and it was sort of a relief to get it all down."
The fireplace vignette, one of many she shares in the book, provides a revealing glimpse into the loving but disciplined home where she grew up amid the works of Langston Hughes, W. E. Du Bois, Carl Sandburg, and Mark Twain. "My Daddy valued reading almost as much as prayer, service, and work," she recalls. "Reading - and not just what you have to - is probably the most important thing you do in life. Developing the habit is vital."
Each of her sons, for instance, was asked to read a certain number of books monthly every summer. "I said, `If you don't pick them, I will,' " she says. Though television interfered somewhat, the boys could get credit for watching more TV by reading more books. Whatever they read or saw, they were encouraged to question and discuss with their parents.
Her parents were strict but very supportive, she says. Rather than assign chores, they joined their children to clean the church, where her father preached and her mother was organist, or they made calls on those within their segregated community who were ill or in need. Service to others was a normal part of daily life, she says, and neighbors cared and watched out for one another.
Hard work was a key part of the mix. After Marian's father passed on, her mother prepared meals at a home for the elderly and took in 12 foster children to help put her two youngest children through college. Marian went on to Spelman College in Atlanta where she was first in her class and won a scholarship to Yale Law School.
"We had incredible role models," she recalls, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young. "We had all these people telling us you could and must change the world and use your education for something."
HIGH on her list of parental obligations to children now is the job of instilling values and teaching right from wrong. "Kids need a countervoice," she says. "They really want to know what we feel strongly about and what we value.... We need to challenge all the cultural signals that glorify violence and careless sex." Many young people really are searching for a "new way," in her view, and need support in that effort. "A lot of kids are not engaging in too-early sex. We need to say, `That's terrific, th at's pretty cool.' Most kids are staying in school. More kids are making it than not. We need to create a new set of heroes and heroines around them."
A strong moral tone underlies much of her advice. She admits that she herself is struggling every moment to live what she preaches. She says that religious leaders and congregations have been "awfully quiet" about the "extraordinary struggle of parents and about what is happening to kids." Nothing is more important, in her view, than for children to gain a clear sense of direction, an inner strength that allows them to resist the pressure of a crowd, and the confidence that comes from knowing one is neve r outside of God's love.
Her own sons have a "dual heritage" from their parents' interracial marriage, she notes. Though the boys usually went to her church, their father is of Russian-Jewish descent and a bar mitzvah service was held for each son.
Their mother constantly stresses the importance of helping the many other children who face poverty and much more difficult circumstances as they grow up. They will, she notes, be part of the nation's work force, and Americans cannot afford to lose them to drugs and crime or write them off as problems. "We need to see the strengths and potential of our young people," she insists.
Marian Wright Edelman has been passionately committed to improving the lives of children in need for as long as anyone who has known her can remember. Roger Wilkins, now a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University, says he first noticed that commitment in the 1960s when she was a civil rights lawyer pressing Washington to fund a black community-based Head Start program in Mississippi.
"Marian fought like a tiger," recalls Mr. Wilkins, then an assistant United States attorney general. "Her sense of connection to children and their well being was very personal and very deep." Wilkins, a longtime family friend, also describes Mrs. Edelman as a "devoted, intense, deeply involved mother" whose sons are sure to be the richer for it. His own mother is similarly idealistic and successful, he says, with the same strong spiritual - rather than material - values.
"It's been a gigantic blessing ... and I think Marian's sons will feel the same way," he says. "It puts you way, way ahead."