Marian Wright was born June 6, 1939 in Bennettsville, South Carolina. In 1953, her father died when she was 14, urging in his last words, "Don't let anything get in the way of your education."
She attended Marlboro Training High School in Bennettsville, and went on to Spelman College and traveled the world on a Merrill scholarship and studied in the Soviet Union as a Lisle fellow. She also became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and after being arrested for her activism, she decided to study law and enrolled at Yale Law School where she earned a Juris Doctor in 1963.
Edelman was the first African American woman admitted to The Mississippi Bar. She began practicing law with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.'s Mississippi office, working on racial justice issues connected with the civil rights movement and representing activists during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. She also helped establish a Head Start program .
Edelman moved in 1968 to Washington, D.C. where she continued her work and contributed to the organizing of the Poor People's Campaign of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and also became interested in issues related to childhood development and children.
In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund as a voice for poor children, children of color,and children with disabilities. The organization has served as an advocacy and research center for children's issues, documenting the problems and possible solutions to children in need.
As founder, leader and principal spokesperson for the CDF, Mrs. Edelman worked to persuade Congress to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care and protect children who are disabled, homeless, abused or neglected. A philosophy of service absorbed during her childhood under-girds all her efforts. As she expresses it, “If you don’t like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time.”
She continues to advocate youth pregnancy prevention, child-care funding, prenatal care, greater parental responsibility in teaching values and curtailing what she sees as children’s exposure to the barrage of violent images transmitted by mass media. Edelman serves on the board of the New York City based Robin Hood Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty.
During a tour by Robert Kennedy and Joseph Clark of Mississippi's poverty-ridden Delta slums in 1967, she met Peter Edelman, an assistant to Kennedy. They married on July 14, 1968. Edelman and her husband, a Georgetown law professor, have three children: Joshua, Jonah, and Ezra. Joshua is an educational administrator; Jonah, a Ph.D. from Oxford University, works in education advocacy; Ezra is a television producer.
Honors and awards
1985 MacArthur Fellowship
1985 Barnard Medal of Distinction
1986 Doctor of Laws, honoris causa Bates College
1988 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism
1991 Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.
1992 Boy Scouts of America, Silver Buffalo Award
1995 Community of Christ International Peace Award
1996 The 2nd Annual Heinz Award in the Human Condition
2000 Presidential Medal of Freedom
2011 Rathbun Visiting Fellow at Stanford University