Marian Wright Edelman: Still a rebel at 75

"Equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air," author Maya Angelou once said. "We all have it, or none of us has it."

Marian Wright Edelman knew the meaning of equal rights, fair play, and justice from a young age—because they were denied to her.

Born in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1939, Edelman was, she says, a rebel by the age of four or five. After being told that the water fountains in her hometown department store were separated by race, she took to switching the signs so that "white people would always drink the black water." She knew, of course, that "there's no such thing as white water or black water."

A graduate of Yale Law School, Edelman worked as a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi before founding the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. She recently spoke with Abigail Wilson-Kageni, a member of the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps, about growing up in the Jim Crow South and why she has spent her life seeking justice, especially for vulnerable children. 

Here are excerpts from Edelman's conversation with Abigail, edited for clarity and brevity.

On the people who helped shape her:

The most important people were my parents. They were great parents in my little segregated town of Bennettsville. My daddy was a preacher, and my mother was a real organizer. Everything she started still goes on in my hometown even though she's been dead 30 years. She was the church organist and choirmaster. She started the Mother’s Club. She started circles in honor of great ladies in the community.

I also had a great community of co-parents. Black children back then, even though the white world said we weren’t worth very much and weren’t important, we didn’t believe it because our parents and our community of co-parents said it wasn’t so.

Many of those community co-parents were not people with a lot of education. But they loved kids. They were very wise, and they were so supportive. If we went somewhere we were not supposed to go, or if we did things we were not supposed to do, well, everybody felt free to call us in and say, “Cut it out.”

Then I went off to Spelman College [in Atlanta], and I had great role models. Some of them were from South Carolina, including Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who was the president of Morehouse College. He was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. [with whom Edelman later worked] and thousands of black students who came through Atlanta universities.

The other person I remember, because it was the first time I saw a black woman control a room of men, was Mary McLeod Bethune. I was a little girl, and she was at a dinner at Benedict College in Columbia [South Carolina]. My daddy used to drive us 100 miles anywhere to see a great person and to see great role models.

I remember one night she was telling stories. It was the first time I heard the saying, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” She was so brilliant, so strong, so self-reliant, and so proud of being a black woman. That’s something that stuck with me, to be proud about your color. What’s important is what’s inside you.

On living with fear in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement:

Death became a daily reality in Mississippi. People lived with death every day—brave, incredible people. But when you believe in something very deeply, as I did in racial justice and wanting people to be treated equally, you get beyond thinking about that. We had something that was worth living for, but we also had something that was worth dying for.

In the evenings, we would come back to the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] office. We would laugh and tell stories about how we had been scared and who had been shot at and how a plantation owner had almost caught you.

One of the habits I got into after Medgar Evers was killed, which we were taught and trained to do, was to check for bombs under the hood of the car. During the summer of 1964, we heard bombs go off in Jackson every day. But we learned how to keep going.

One day, after there had been a shooting, we organized a march of scraggly people downtown to the courthouse. We were trying to show that shootings were not going to stop people from wanting to vote.

We were met by a big mob. It was the first time police dogs were used in the South to scare people. A dog lunged at [SNCC leader] Bob Moses, who was at the head of the line, and ripped his pants. Boy, did that terrify people. Everyone began to scatter. I was astonished by Bob's ability not to show fear. To this day, I will cross a street when I see a police dog.

Dr. King would be able to tell you how scared he often was, which I loved about him. When he was arrested in Atlanta and taken to a Georgia jail many miles away with a police dog in the car, even though there was a screen between him and the dog, he would talk about how scared he was.

When I go back to Mississippi now and drive along the roads, I remember how terrifying it was. But incredible courage was shown. Recently, we took busloads of young people to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to see where the three young men [civil-rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner] were killed. We don't want anyone to forget how much so many people sacrificed.

On why Edelman started the Children's Defense Fund:

I think it comes out of my childhood. There were many things that I was excluded from, and I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand not being able to go to the public library.

We lived on a highway, and I remember being awakened in the middle of the night once. There was a big car accident, and we all ran out to see what had happened, to see if we could be helpful. A black migrant family had collided with a truck driver who was white. The ambulance came, and when they saw that the truck driver was not hurt, they drove away and left the injured black people without help. That stuck in my mind. My childhood defined my passion—to make sure barriers were broken down.

I'm very proud that the public library in my hometown is now named after me. There's a sign above the entrance that says, "Welcome to Everyone."

On law enforcement, then and now:

There was always unequal application of the law when I was growing up. Black parents had to tell their children, particularly their black boys, how to behave when they were confronted by white policemen or white people. We were expected to be deferential.

The white kids were on one side of town, and we were on the other. Every day after school, we would have fights about who was going to claim the sidewalk. It was a ritual. But I think that black boys were taught how to survive. In many ways, black boys today have been taught how to survive.

One of the most searing experiences of my life came when I was a young lawyer in Mississippi. A 15-year-old boy was walking down the street in Jackson with a group of other young black boys. He was picked up in a police dragnet and put in jail for nothing. While he was in jail, the police officers killed him.

I was asked to meet the boy's parents at the funeral home when they brought his clothes for the viewing. I’d never seen a child who had had an autopsy. I saw this slender young man, and something in me snapped. I went out to the jail where he had allegedly attacked three white policemen. There was no way. But violence against black children and against young black men was an everyday experience in Mississippi.

Among the tragedies of the past year, the one that has bothered me most has been 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland [Ohio]. I've watched the tape numerous times. He was just playing cops and robbers, or whatever it was. It was clearly a fantasy game. Then to see the police pull up and barely get out of the car and shoot him. They denied his sister the right to comfort him and instead tackled her to the ground. They wouldn’t let his mother ride in the ambulance with him. I watched as all these other policemen came up while this child was lying on the ground without comfort or medical attention.

We expected the lawlessness of segregated cops in Mississippi. We expected the conspiracy between the Ku Klux Klan and the law-enforcement officials in Philadelphia, who were responsible for the deaths of the three young men. But you don't expect it as much today in such an overt and unjust fashion. It must be stopped.

Someday, I hope that we'll get a solid, sustainable truth and reconciliation process. Our country, which is a great country, and which has the right dream—and had the right dream in the Declaration of Independence—has never confronted the gap between America's dream, which says that everybody is created equal and has certain inalienable rights before our creator, and the violation of that dream in the actions that were taken.

Start with Native American genocide. Columbus didn't discover America. There were Americans here, and they're called Native Americans.

The dream was also violated by slavery. Capitalism and moneymaking were chosen at the expense of the freedom of other men and women.

The dream was violated by excluding all women—and some men—from the electoral process.

Ever since, we've been struggling to overcome these severe—though I hope not fatal—birth defects, through a Civil War, the Reconstruction era, and a post-Reconstruction era. Then we had a Civil Rights Movement. We're now, worrisomely, slipping back into a second post-Reconstruction era, with unequal application of the law and the resegregation of so many of our public schools.

The schools are not equal. Many black and brown children who are poor are going to schools that don't have the same quality of books and facilities. It's still not fair, and it could all slip back. I hope we can begin to move toward a better America by confronting a past that continues to plague the present.

On how children today can make a difference:

I encourage young people to read about the role that children played during the Civil Rights Movement. In many ways, children were the leaders. Can you imagine being 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walking through howling mobs of white people every morning and stopping to pray for them? I’m not sure I’m that good.

It was unbelievable what children were able to do against great odds. But I think from the beginning, there were very few who didn’t want to see things change. They didn’t like the black hand-me-down books that were second-rate and old. They didn’t like the hand-me-down football uniforms.

Many of us sat in the front of the buses before Mrs. Parks sat down. We just didn’t get arrested. When the sit-in movement came, it was exhilarating to be able to make a difference.

It’s a very lucky thing to have a cause worth living for, though I don't want you and your generation to have to re-fight all the battles we had to fight. You've got to be vigilant and know about your past. You've got to know that you have a great heritage and courageous people who gave everything for freedom. I think that's something to be mighty proud of.