On February 26, the New York University Annual Survey of American Law held a ceremony dedicating its 76th volume to Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a leading advocacy organization for poor children, children of color, and children with disabilities.
The longtime children’s rights activist, who was the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, began her career in the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. After relocating to Washington, DC, she worked in the civil rights movement, including for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, before founding CDF in 1973. Among her myriad recognitions are a MacArthur Fellowship and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The speakers at the event—more than one of whom had worked with Edelman at CDF—described a woman selflessly dedicated to the welfare of children, with a long-term strategic vision and an ability to adapt to shifting political landscapes.
“Because of you, there are children who are free from hunger and homelessness,” said Annual Survey editor-in-chief Kathryn Morris ’19, addressing Edelman. “Because of you, there are children that have access to health care, who have a foundation to be successful in the classroom, and who feel safe, supported, and loved in their homes and in their communities.”
In her acceptance remarks, Edelman pointed to the work remaining to be done, and said that advocating for children remains part of a crucial struggle for racial and economic justice. “We’re going to end child poverty in this country. It’s obscene,” she said. “We’re going to break up that cradle-to-prison pipeline. And we’re going to either do it or we’re going to continue to slide backwards, but I think it’s the Achilles’ heel of this nation, and I think it’s the most important work.”
John Sexton, Benjamin F. Butler Professor of Law, dean emeritus of the Law School, and president emeritus of NYU
“Marian has forced the country to change its way of thinking by bringing the easy case, or relatively easy case, first—none of them have been easy—but then building on that precedent of political momentum that leads to grand strategic success when viewed back through the lens of 40 years.”
James Weill ’69, president of the Food Research & Action Center
“When Marian launched the Children’s Defense Fund, there was no entity like the one she set out to create: a multifaceted advocacy organization committed to building the rights of and supports for children and their families, not just through litigation, but through research, lobbying, regulatory advocacy, network-building, organizing, and consistent and moral leadership.”
Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy
“Marian’s big project [was] placing child advocacy at the center of a racial and economic justice agenda. She placed children at the center for two reasons: because of who they are, their vulnerability, the moral demand that we pay attention to them, and also because sympathy for children offers a way of engaging the broader public in caring about children’s families and communities. CDF’s goal was that people’s moral and emotional reaction to the suffering of children would help bridge racial and class divides and lead to solutions.”
Martin Guggenheim ’71, Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law
“What you did was create the most important NGO of its kind in the world. You set out to change how we treat children, with a strong commitment to improving the lives of the least ‘important’ people in this country. And that’s not children, that’s poor children of color. That’s been your compass of true north, and I know no one who has walked that walk with the integrity and commitment and vision and brilliance that compares to you and to what you’ve accomplished.”
Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 48 min):
Posted March 15, 2019