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Marian Wright Edelman Exclusive: Children Need Advocates – in Georgia and Across America

Children's Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman spoke exclusively with Sustenance Group after her roundtable discussion about early childhood education at the Clinton Foundation's CGI America meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on June 14, 2016. A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, Edelman is a children's rights advocate and civil rights activist who, in the 1960s, worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote poverty alleviation and participated in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm, in 1968 and started the Children's Defense Fund in 1973 to "to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care and protect children who are disabled, homeless, abused or neglected." She has served as an advocate for children for more than fifty years.

Below, Ms Edelman shares her experiences:

Child burials have been an issue for decades.

"When the Democratic Convention was held in Atlanta in 1988, we did a Child Watch with journalist Roger Rosenblatt (an editor for U.S. News and World Reports and a CBS News Consultant). We went to Grady Hospital to the neonatal intensive care unit. Nurses told us that [when children died], ministers couldn't bury them right away, they had to wait until there was a "critical mass." That meant that [families] had to go through the grieving process twice. Can you imagine losing a child and waiting for weeks or months [because you cannot afford to bury them yourself]?"

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign against poverty was child-centric.

"I first heard Dr. King speak in chapel when I was a student at Spelman. I tell young people to keep diaries and notebooks every day. I had left [my Spelman] notebook up in New Haven when I was in law school at Yale, and someone found it and sent it back to me. I realized I had written down everything he said [that first time I heard him speak]. He was a daily presence in my life from that moment on. He was a very accessible man. Two or three of the things he said that day, which I find run through my head now are these:

  • The importance of faith: You don't have to see the whole stairway, but take the first step and leave the rest to God.

  • Keep moving: If you can't fly, you drive. If you can't drive, you run. If you can't run, you walk. If you can't walk, you crawl. Sometimes you have to crawl. Just keep moving forward, that is the point.

He was the first adult, in many ways, who was a powerful leader and who admitted he didn't know the answers to everything. He could be scared in front of you, so it was OK for us to be scared. Martin Luther King could share his fears and his doubts. When we were having our first big Head Start program meeting here in Atlanta, he showed up for us. He was always there. He had humility and was able to function despite doubt and was able to encapsulate our dreams."

Forty U.S. laws to protect children have been enacted since the start of the Children's Defense Fund.

"We wouldn't have civil rights laws if ordinary people in communities [around the country] didn't speak up. We knocked on doors. For our 1974 report, Children Out of School in America, we knocked on thousands of doors in census tracks all over America to find out who these children were who were among up to two million children out of school between the ages of 7-17. About 750,000 of those were disabled children. Out of this came the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act. We got that passed, but now we are facing the second generation problem of children being over-labeled as emotionally handicapped. [Getting laws passed] is the hardest work in the world."

We must dedicate more time, resources and care for the welfare of children in America.

"We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. It's morally obscene and economically stupid to let children be the poorest groups of Americans and to not have an early childhood system. How are you going to build a house without a foundation? It's tied up with race, and the notion that some children are worthy and some children are not worthy. God did not make two classes of children."

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