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CDF president to speak at Ford Center

A civil rights activist who was once an advocate against Mississippi’s poverty and racial discrimination is returning to the state to discuss her journey of defending Americans, especially children.  
In 1973, Marian Wright Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and the organization is still functioning and guiding children into adulthood. As president of the CDF, Edelman has created a foundation for children and families “to have equal playing ground” no matter what their background, according to the CDF’s website.
In fact, George W. Bush patterned his “No Child Left Behind” initiative after Edelman’s “Leave No Child Behind” phrase that the CDF still emphasizes.
Because of her impact on the nation’s children and her work through the CDF, Edelman has been asked by the Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies to be the keynote speaker for Black History Month at the Ford Center on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m.
“She’s a hero to a lot of people for being both inspirational about the potential for improving things and for working day-to-day to address really specific problems,” said Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and professor of history and Southern studies. “We need to hear her voice both to listen to policy objectives and also to hear how she tells her own story.”
Journalism professor Curtis Wilkie, also inaugural fellow of the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, said the Overby Center wanted to take advantage of Edelman’s presence at the university. Edelman will revisit her memories of her time in the Delta with Kennedy at the Overby Center on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 1 p.m.
Ten years before the CDF was created, Edelman came to Mississippi in her twenties to work on overcoming racial issues. In her time spent in the state, Edelman saw the poverty-stricken homes and lack of education. She decided that the injustice was too much to ignore and was admitted into the Mississippi Bar in 1965.
“I think the important thing is not just to see her as a ‘first,’ but to see that she was working to use the law to protect people from discrimination and to support their rights to better educations and chances for better jobs with better wages,” Ownby said.  
Edelman testified to a U.S. Senate Committee about the poverty in Mississippi, citing that the local food aid was not distributed efficiently and people were starving and out of work. Her detailed inquiry led to a tour in 1967 that Sens. Robert Kennedy and Sen. Joseph Clark and Edelman took of the state to verify the conditions, specifically in the Mississippi Delta.   
“Because Kennedy had such a high profile, where he went the media also went,” said Ellen Meacham, a journalism professor who researched Edelman’s visit to the state with Kennedy for a personal project. “When he walked into those dilapidated houses that were falling apart with no food in the refrigerator and children who hadn’t eaten since the day before, when he walked in and heard their parents talk about their struggles, the world heard it.”
After they returned to Washington, Kennedy, along with the subcommittee that went with him to Mississippi, started making efforts to change the situation he had witnessed.
Edelman spent five years in Mississippi witnessing discrimination and fighting it as an NAACP lawyer. She helped organize a Head Start program in Mississippi but later left out of frustration due to lack of compromise and moved to Washington, D.C.
“The event with Robert Kennedy is an indicator of the way she speaks directly to those in power and is very forthright (about) what programs work and what doesn’t and what needs to be done,” Meacham said.
In 1968, Marian Wright married Peter Edelman, Kennedy’s assistant, who she met on the tour of the Delta. The same year, Wright Edelman joined Martin Luther King Jr. in efforts to improve poverty by being on the counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign. Edelman is still on many boards, including the Robin Hood Foundation and the Association to Benefit Children, and is a member of organizations, including the Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.  
She has also written books describing her experiences and knowledge. One of her books, “The Measure of Success,” is written in the form of a letter to her son and describes what she saw in the past and how it has, or has not, changed. With her husband, a Georgetown Law School professor, Edelman had three sons who have given her four grandchildren.
The South Carolina native studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, during which time she traveled to the Soviet Union and Africa on a scholarship and later received a law degree from Yale. In between those years, she became a civil rights activist and was even arrested for her work. Today, Edelman still remains a voice for children across America.
“As future leaders, our students need to know where there are opportunities to serve and make a difference,” said Meacham, who will moderate the conversation at the Overby Center. “In fact, students don’t have to wait to take action. Those opportunities are right outside our campus gates.”