Biography of Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Rights Activist

Marian Wright Edelman, 2003
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Marian Wright Edelman (born June 6, 1939) is an American lawyer, educator, and children's rights activist. In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy and research group. Edelman was the first African-American woman to be admitted to the Mississippi state bar.

Fast Facts: Marian Wright Edelman

  • Known For: Edelman is a children's rights advocate who founded the Children's Defense Fund.
  • Born: June 6, 1939 in Bennettsville, South Carolina
  • Parents: Arthur Jerome Wright and Maggie Leola Bowen
  • Education: Spelman College, Yale Law School
  • Awards and Honors: MacArthur Fellowship, Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, National Women's Hall of Fame, Community of Christ International Peace Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Spouse: Peter Edelman (m. 1968)
  • Children: Joshua, Jonah, Ezra
  • Notable Quote: "So much of America's tragic and costly failure to care for all its children stems from our tendency to distinguish between our own children and other people's children—as if justice were divisible."

Early Life

Marian Wright Edelman was born on born June 6, 1939, and raised in Bennettsville, South Carolina, one of five children. Her father Arthur Wright was a Baptist preacher who taught his children that Christianity required service in this world and was influenced by A. Phillip Randolph. Her mother was Maggie Leola Bowen. Marian's father died when she was only 14 years old. In his last words to her, he urged her not to "let anything get in the way of your education."


Edelman went on to study at Spelman College. She studied abroad on a Merrill scholarship and later traveled to the Soviet Union on a Lisle fellowship. When she returned to Spelman in 1959, Edelman became involved in the civil rights movement. This work inspired her to drop her plans to enter the foreign service and study law instead. As a law student at Yale University, she worked on a project to register African-American voters in Mississippi.


In 1963 after graduating from Yale Law School, Edelman worked first in New York for the NAACP Legal and Defense Fund and then in Mississippi for the same organization. There, she became the first African-American woman to practice law. During her time in Mississippi, she worked on racial justice issues connected with the civil rights movement and helped get a Head Start program established in her community.

During a tour by Robert Kennedy and Joseph Clark of Mississippi's poverty-ridden Delta slums, Marian met Peter Edelman, an assistant to Kennedy, and the next year she moved to Washington, D.C., to marry him and to work for social justice in the center of America's political scene. The couple had three sons: Joshua, Jonah, and Ezra. Jonah is the founder of Stand for Children, a group that promotes children's education initiatives, and Ezra is a documentary filmmaker who won an Emmy for his film "O.J.: Made in America."

In Washington, D.C., Edelman continued her social justice work, helping to organize Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign and assisting with the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She then began to focus on issues related to child development and child poverty.

Children's Defense Fund

In 1973, Edelman established the Children's Defense Fund as a voice for poor, minority, and disabled children. She served as a public speaker on behalf of these children, and also as a lobbyist in Congress and both president and administrative head of the organization. The agency served not only as an advocacy organization, but as a research center, documenting the problems of children in need and searching for ways to help them. To keep the agency independent, she saw that it was financed entirely with private funds.

The Children's Defense Fund has supported a variety of the legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which created protections for children with disabilities in the classroom; the Children's Health Insurance Program, which expanded health insurance coverage for children; and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which improved foster care programs.

Edelman has published several books about her ideas. "The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours" was a surprising success.

In the 1990s after Bill Clinton was elected President, First Lady Hillary Clinton's involvement with the Children's Defense Fund brought significant attention to the organization. But Edelman did not pull her punches in criticizing the Clinton administration's legislative agenda—including its "welfare reform" initiatives—when she believed it would be disadvantageous to the nation's neediest children.

In 1993, the Children's Defense Fund launched a Freedom Schools initiative to promote literacy and learning through reading. The group also launched a program that awards college scholarships and trains young leaders. The Children's Defense Fund has also been involved in efforts to help low-income families with childcare and healthcare.

As part of the efforts of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman has also advocated for pregnancy prevention, child care funding, health care funding, prenatal care, and gun control. In 1985, she received a MacArthur "Genius" grant, and in 1991 she was named ABC's Person of the Week—"The Children's Champion." Edelman is also the recipient of more than 65 honorary degrees. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom—one of the nation's highest honors.


Edelman is the author of numerous books for children and adults. Her titles for young readers include "I'm Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children," "Guide My Feet: Prayers and Meditations for Our Children," "The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours," and "Stand for Children." Edelman's books for adults include "Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors," "I Dream a World," and "Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change."


  • Edelman, Marian Wright. "The Measure of Our Success: a Letter to My Children and Yours." Beacon Press, 1993.
  • Siegel, Beatrice. "Marian Wright Edelman: the Making of a Crusader." Simon & Schuster, 1995.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Rights Activist." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Biography of Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Rights Activist. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Rights Activist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).