Background/significance: Marian Wright Edelman has spent her life advocating for disadvantaged Americans — especially children — believing that we can eliminate poverty through better nutrition and child care, better education and more employment options for young people.
She is the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, which works to ensure that all children have a healthy start in life.
Her journey is a series of firsts. After graduating from Spelman College and Yale Law School, she became the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. In the 1960s, she directed the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi, before moving to Washington, DC, as an attorney for the Poor People’s Campaign, organized by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
She founded the public interest law firm, the Washington Research Project, and from that came the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973.
In the world of academia, she was director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University and served on the board of Spelman College, including as chairman from 1976 to 1987. She was the first woman elected by alumni to be a member of the Yale University Corporation (1971–77).
She has received many honorary degrees and awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship.
In 2000, she received the highest civilian award in the US, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
South Carolina connection: Edelman was born and grew up in Bennettsville, the youngest of five children. Her father, a Baptist minister, taught her to always help others and strive to make the world a better place. She has always credited her upbringing as instilling the core values that would propel her to a career advocating for the disadvantaged.
Discover more: The library in her hometown is now the Marian Wright Edelman Public Library of Marlboro County, and she was inducted into the SC Hall of Fame in 2014.