Hi there,

This week Democracy Now! is bringing you live, on-the-ground coverage of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, where you’ll hear the voices and analysis you won’t get anywhere else. In August, we’ll travel to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. Democracy Now! doesn’t accept corporate advertising or sponsorship revenue, and we don’t take money from any government. That means we’re relying on you. Can you donate $15 to Democracy Now! today to support our RNC and DNC coverage—and so much more? Right now, a generous donor will TRIPLE your gift, which means your $15 donation is worth $45. Please do your part to help us air in-depth, substantive coverage of the conventions and the issues that matter most during the 2024 election cycle. Thank you so much—and remember, every dollar makes a difference.
-Amy Goodman

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.


Following Decades of Renowned Activism, Pioneering Children’s Rights Advocate Marian Wright Edelman on “Charting a Course for the Next Generation”

StorySeptember 24, 2008
Watch Full Show
Media Options

As Congress debates bailing out the wealthiest corporations in America, we speak to a tireless advocate for those on the other end. Marian Wright Edelman has been advocating for children, particularly the poor, for more than forty years. She is the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, now celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary. The organization works to lift children out of poverty, protect them from abuse, and ensure access to healthcare and education. Edelman served as counsel to Martin Luther King in 1968 and helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryJul 24, 2007Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman Calls on Congress & Bush Administration to Help the Country’s Nine Million Children Without Health Insurance
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As Congress debates the bailing out of the wealthiest corporations in America, what about those at the other end? How is it that the gap between the rich and poor here in the United States is the highest ever recorded and higher than in every other wealthy industrialized nation?

Marian Wright Edelman has been advocating for children, particularly the poor, for more than forty years. She is the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, now celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary. The group works to lift children out of poverty, protect them from abuse, ensure access to healthcare and education. She served as counsel to Martin Luther King in 1968 and helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign.

She was recently honored at a reception in Denver during the Democratic National Convention and again yesterday at the Time Warner Center here in New York, where they featured a tribute to her life’s work.

    NARRATOR: Mississippi, 1964, rich farmland and the quiet beauty of the mighty Mississippi hide a racially divided society where violence reigns supreme. Over 80 percent of blacks were poor. Those who suffered the most were children.

    One program, Head Start, became a bright light in the darkness of discrimination and poverty for many children. Healthcare, hot meals and creative teaching helped prepare poor children for school and a better future. Concerned that powerful politicians wanted to dismantle Mississippi’s Head Start, Marian Wright, a young civil rights lawyer and the first black woman to pass the Mississippi Bar, helped lead the fight for Head Start and committed herself to improving the lives of Mississippi’s children.

    But poverty persisted, and by 1967, one in seven Americans was poor. The problems of race and poverty seemed hopelessly intertwined.

    Marian Wright testified in 1967 before a Senate subcommittee overseeing the poverty program.

    MARIAN WRIGHT: They are starving. They’re starving, and those who can get the bus fare to go north are trying to go north. But there is absolutely nothing for them to do. There’s nowhere to go.

    NARRATOR: Senator Robert F. Kennedy, moved by her testimony, went with her into the Mississippi Delta to investigate.

    SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: What did you have for lunch.

    CHILD: We haven’t had yet.

    SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: You haven’t had lunch yet?

    CHILD: No.

    NARRATOR: Senator Kennedy got help and food to Mississippi children, and in 1968 he urged Marian Wright to help Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organize a Poor People’s Campaign that demanded immediate action for the poor and an end to hunger.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I want some of you all to go to Washington with us, even if you have to bring your whole family.

    NARRATOR: But two months before the campaign was to take place, Dr. King was gunned down. The march went on without him. Led by Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Marian Wright, the poor came to Washington to tell the nation about their plight.

    Marian Wright remained in Washington and became a permanent voice, first for poor people and families through the Washington Research Project and then for all children, and in 1973 the Children’s Defense Fund was born.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from our break, we’ll be joined by Marian Wright Edelman, leading children’s rights defender in this country. Stay with us.



Our guest today, Marian Wright Edelman, joining us in our firehouse studio, she has published her ninth book, timed with the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Children’s Defense Fund. It’s called The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation.

Marian Wright Edelman, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: And it’s particularly important to talk to you in these critical times, when, as you write, the gap between rich and poor in the United States is the highest ever recorded and higher than in every other wealthy industrialized nation, and we’re seeing perhaps the largest bailout in history passed for the wealthiest corporations in this country.


And the real crisis in America is not the real bailout on Wall Street; it is what we’re doing with our children and our failure to invest in our human capital for the future. What is happening in our country, where a child is born into poverty every thirty-three seconds, and we have seen an increase in child poverty, 500,000 in the recent — in the last three years.


Half a million?


Half a million children between 2005, 2006, and that’s before the downturn in the economy; where we have a child who is born without health insurance every forty-one seconds, is neglected or abused every thirty-six seconds, is having a child every minute; and where we have got one in three black boys who are seven years old today who is going to go to prison in his lifetime, one in six Hispanic boys likely to go to prison in his lifetime, one in seventeen white boys to go to prison in his lifetime — we’re the world’s biggest jailer, and we’re spending three times more on incarceration than on public education per pupil — and where we’ve got ten percent of our — children drop out of school every ten seconds of every school day; and where 65 percent of all of our children are not reading at grade level in twelfth grade if they’ve stayed in school, and a half of them have not; and where over 80 percent of our black and Hispanic children cannot read at grade level in fourth, eighth or twelfth grade. The real economic downfall and the — is in these figures, and we have got to begin to get our heads screwed on straight and to begin to invest in the future and in our young people today.


And yet, we’ve been told that we can’t afford that.


Well, we can’t afford not to. We have seen, in effect, an ideological and economic coup d’etat over the last decade, where we’ve taken from the poor, taken from children, and given in massive tax breaks to the rich and in prosecuting several wars. And, you know, this is just — we are upside-down.

We have got to reset our moral compass. We have got to redirect our attention to our internal human infrastructure, because I am convinced that what we are failing to do today in educating our children, providing them very basic healthcare, is going to be a moral and economic Achilles’ heel that is going to topple America’s leadership in the world in the future.


When I saw you yesterday, you shared a poignant anecdote about a child after 9/11 and their comment.


Well, children are very insecure. I wrote this book because I was so worried about the kind of world I’m was leaving to my grandchildren and our children, and my grandchildren have radicalized me all over again. And you say, what? What? What are we doing here? Are they safer or less safe? Are they going to be — have a better standard of living or a less good standard of living?

And after 9/11, I began to look at some of the things that children had said, and it kind of, as you know, pierced our false sense of invulnerability, that somehow our military might and our purported economic might would protect us against an increasingly porous world that is again divided between rich and poor in ways that are unprecedented until now.

But one of the comments — two of the comments that came from the children, one was in a suburban area, saying that after 9/11 she would never trust the sky again. And another child said, “How are we expected to grow up with this threat of death hanging over us?”

And I think that we’re in a very precarious state. Our nuclear proliferation — the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had said, in the era when Dr. King was here and he was calling for an end to our over-excessive reliance on militarism, that our world was — they have a clock, and they said that the doomsday clock was set at seven days, seven minutes before midnight, when Dr. King was alive, warning us against the dangers of militarism. And today that clock is at five minutes to midnight, as more nuclear weapons are out there and potentially in the hands of rogue nations and less stable nations. And I think our children deserve better, and we need to pull ourselves back from the reckless actions that have threatened all of our future.


You, Marian Wright Edelman, worked with Dr. King on the Poor People’s Campaign forty years ago. And in your book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small, it’s a series of letters, and one of them is to Dr. King. What do you tell him? What are you writing him, a letter forty years after his assassination?


Well, I wanted to report on how we had done against the big demons he warned us against. He warned us about the dangers of racism, about the dangers of poverty and excessive materialism, about the dangers of militarism, and that if we didn’t confront these things, that America would be headed in the wrong direction.

You know, we have celebrated Dr. King mightily over the last forty years, and we’re building monuments on the Mall, and I’m very proud of that, and I think he would be surprised. But we have not followed him. We have trivialized him. We have sanitized him. But I find his message so strong.

And so, I wanted to say, well, unfortunately, since you’ve warned us against militarism, we’ve gotten into ten wars, and we’ve spent trillions of dollars on war and in the name of repairing for peace or trying to maintain the peace. When you died, we had 11 million poor children. Today we have 13 million poor children, although our GDP is three times larger. We have made great progress in lifting some children out of poverty but have fallen back, and most of the people who are poor and the children who are poor are working people playing by the rules but can’t make ends meet. But we have not really made enough progress on that.

And we obviously have made some progress on race. I think he would be so proud to see what has happened this election year with Barack Obama breaking the glass ceilings and hoping to transcend the issues of race in this election, and having a woman also break that ceiling. But I think he would not be pleased when I told him about the cradle-to-prison pipeline and what has happened to all of our young people who are sliding backwards and which threatens — this cradle-to-prison pipeline — all the progress he and many others sacrificed and died for.


One of the fastest-growing sectors, the for-profit prison industry in this country.


Oh, prisons are big business, and I can’t think of a dumber investment policy than the fact that our states are spending on average three times more per prisoner than per public school pupil. We’ve got to get some common sense and invest in our nation’s future, which is right now, and the lives and brains and healthcare and early childhood development of our children today.


At the Republican convention, there was a Poor People’s March. They were pepper-sprayed, they were beaten, they were arrested. But what about the organizing of poor people, the strategy you used forty years ago, and do you see it progressing at all today?


Well, we have made some progress. But I think —- and I think the Poor People’s Campaign, which people pronounce a failure, really was a turning point. It was a cross-racial movement. It came with a witness that was not neat or clean, and it was amazing to me that 5,000 people could get to Washington three or four weeks after Dr. King’s death. They broke through the clutter of -—


But explain, because I think, especially young people, they don’t even know what you’re talking about. What do you mean they marched in Washington right after April 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated? And how did he and you and others organize poor people in this country?


Well, you know, Dr. King’s last big act was calling for a campaign to end poverty in America and, through a Poor People’s Campaign, brought together white, black, Latino and Native American poor to show that it cut across race and in every place in our country. And he began to talk about the need to go beyond narrow civil rights; that we understood that if you had the right to eat at a lunch counter but didn’t have a job, that that freedom was hollow and that you put to get the economic and social underpinnings. So, in his last months, he was going around organizing the poor of all colors to come to Washington, to move beyond the narrow focus on Negro rights, but to show how all of this had to be dealt with.

And he was in despair, as I was, that so much was being drained from the needs of those who had so little, and hunger was growing in this country, and he had seen, as Robert Kennedy had seen, children with bloated bellies and with — who weren’t getting enough food. There were people in Mississippi, where I was practicing, with no income and no means of surviving, and they were using the food program in the South, shifting from free food commodities to food stamps and charging fifty cents per person. People didn’t have fifty cents per person. Well, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy had gone and seen these bloated bellies and seen these people with no incomes and said this was unacceptable in a country that was the richest in the world. And we were draining resources off in the Vietnam War, and we had to do something about it.

And they warned repeatedly, and Dr. King warned repeatedly, about whether we were going to let our resources, our richness, our wealth, be our destruction, or whether it was going to be our solution. And he often told the parable of Dives, the rich man Dives, and the poor man Lazarus, languishing at the gate. In fact, in his last Sunday sermon at the Washington Cathedral, he warned that our wealth could be our salvation and that it could be our destruction, if we did not see and hear and respond to the poor Lazaruses at the gates and continued to drain the lifeblood of our nation off into war and into the non-needy, and hoped that he could warn us to do the right thing.

But he died. He was assassinated. But Andrew Young and many of us who had been working with him on the Poor People’s Campaign continued to try to organize and weeks later brought thousands of the poor to Washington, D.C., set up a camp at — we called Resurrection City on the Washington Mall and tried to get the country to focus on the plight of the poor and what we had to do to stop hunger and poverty in this rich nation.


What about, Marian Wright Edelman, the frustration of activists around the country? When Democrats are in power, they too serve the corporate interests, like — I mean, your family certainly knew what happened with welfare reform. You opposed it. This was under President Clinton. Your husband quit the Health and Human Services Administration, Peter Edelman, huge rift, saying this is “welfare deform,” this is not helping people.


Well, you know, I think that one of the basic points in democracy is that there are no friends in politics and that we, as citizens, have to take responsibility for the kind of leaders that we elect, for what the leaders do after they are elected. We need to read their voting cards. I ask everybody to go to CDF’s Action Council website


Children’s Defense Fund.


—- the Children’s Defense Fund’s Action Council website, and look at the voting records of Senator McCain, of Senator Obama, of Senator Biden -— and we don’t have any record on Governor Palin. But I hope that we will go. I mean, you know, if you’ve got someone who has consistently passed and supported children over the last decades or over the last years, then you need to think about that, and we need to vote on the issues. If you’ve got somebody who has an overall average of less than 28 percent on children overall — and Senator McCain last year had ten percent, the lowest voting record in the Senate — we need to look at that.

And we just all need to begin to raise a ruckus, as we have seen the lifeblood of our children’s present and future taken in order to mount a war and to give tax breaks to the rich. It’s not going to happen unless we get together and just say, “Enough! We’re going to go in a different direction.”


Marian Wright Edelman, you’ve just written a piece called “Voting: It’s a Matter of Life and Death.” Already, people are voting around the country. It’s an astounding figure. In Kentucky, in Virginia, during the next few weeks in thirty-four states, people will be voting. It’s estimated that up from 20 percent in 2004, a third of the electorate will already have voted by November 4th. In closely contested Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, half the voters are expected to cast their votes before Election Day. Florida could be 40 percent. People are already going to the polls.


Well, I am so grateful, but everybody has got to get out and take somebody else. This is a world-defining and nation-defining election year. And everybody has got to take the responsibility of counting and making their vote count, because anybody who doesn’t vote is just of no account, and they are really just abandoning their children’s future. Children don’t vote and don’t have a lobby and don’t have a strong enough lobby with the special interest. And we have an obligation to see that our nation and our nation’s future is going to kind of be safer, and that won’t happen unless we deal with the incredible deficits that so many millions of children are growing up today with as a result of poverty and poor education, healthcare, that we have the means, but not the will or the strength, to prevent.


Marian Wright Edelman, there is a big attack on community organizers, a mocking of community organizers, something Barack Obama was. It was particularly on the floor of the Republican convention. But I think a lot of people don’t know what community organizers do, and that might not just be the fault of Republicans — Democrats, too. The politicians, the leaders of this country, rarely come from that kind of background or go to it. Explain community organizing, from your perspective, what you have done at the Children’s Defense Fund, how you do it.


Well, what we do is we go door-to-door, and we talk to people. We try to stay in touch with people. We go to churches and other things to sort of be in touch with the needs of people at the local level. I like to think that Jesus was a community organizer. Gandhi was a community organizer. And for those of us who are committed to values of fairness and justice, you want to make sure that there is a voice for the people who do not have a voice, but that you are constantly working with parents at the local level, with children at the local level. We do surveys. We knock on doors.


What are the Freedom Schools?


The Freedom Schools, we took the concept of the Freedom Schools from the Summer Project of 1964 and where we — in the middle of the voter registration activities, we wanted to have children safe and have them understand and get some citizenship education. We took that, and about fifteen years ago, as a part of a quiet black community crusade for children, and we put a real curriculum underneath it. We began to develop thoughtful books for children to read. It’s a summer — they are summer learning enrichment programs that try to teach children that they can make a difference, as the children in the 1960s really were the frontline soldiers of the revolution, of the civil rights revolution. So, we have reading. We have college students, about 1,200 black and Latino college students.


We have fifteen seconds. Your thoughts?


We have fifteen seconds — teach young people. But they are making children make the difference, and they are teaching children how to serve, how to be good citizens, how to learn to read, and they are also lifting academic achievement.


The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation. That’s the name of Marian Wright Edelman’s latest book, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman Calls on Congress & Bush Administration to Help the Country’s Nine Million Children Without Health Insurance

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation