A Child's Best Friend

Times Staff Writer

When Marian Wright Edelman was growing up in Bennettsville, S.C., an 11-year-old boy she knew stepped on a nail and, for want of proper medical care, died.

Forty years later, she is still outraged.

"Now listen to this," she exhorts a group of well-heeled women gathered recently in the ballroom of Chicago's elegant Drake Hotel. "Every day in America--every day!--81 babies die needlessly, six children commit suicide, 13 children are murdered, 1,827 babies are born without health insurance. . . ."

She fires the facts at her middle-class audience like bullets from a machine gun. Some of the women--even the mayor's wife, Maggie Daley, and Michael Jordan's mother, Deloris, who know the dreadful numbers by heart--fall back in their rose-upholstered chairs and gasp in disbelief.

"Oh my," sighs Jordan, "when Marian talks about the children and their sufferings, it just makes a mother want to break down and cry."

It's OK to cry, says Edelman, but weeping won't solve the problems. As always, Edelman is there to demand action--lobbying for better laws to protect children, money for safer ways to school them and stronger guarantees from every state in the union that all children will get the medical care they need when they need it.

As founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman, 59, has transformed a personal passion into a social institution. Considered by many to be the nation's leading advocate for children, Edelman travels to Los Angeles next week to observe the fund's 25th anniversary of speaking out for the needs of America's youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

A three-day summit on children's needs begins Wednesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Edelman will try to keep the spotlight on the children, but it undoubtedly will stray to illuminate the life of the woman who has been standing up for children since she herself was a child.

Marian Wright was in her third year at Yale Law School when she went to Mississippi to work alongside such legendary leaders as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. Working out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee office in Jackson, she helped to register black voters and to obtain the release of civil rights workers held in local jails.

"I was known as that lady lawyer from up North," she recalls. With the Ku Klux Klan full of new members, it was a dangerous time for a black woman, even one raised in South Carolina, to live and work in the Deep South.

She learned how to start a car with the door open in case there was a bomb, how to stay away from police dogs--especially one on a patrolman's leash. Most important, she learned how to do her job no matter how frightened she was.

Although she had grown up in modest surroundings as the youngest of five children of a Baptist minister and his wife, Wright had never, until Mississippi, encountered such aching deprivation.

Dirty babies with bellies bloated from hunger slumped listlessly on the mud floors of shacks without water, heat or light. Mothers asked her in and, seeing her shock at their hungry children, shrugged and asked her why--why did their children have to suffer? It was a question she could not answer, so she took it to Washington.

She was 27 but looked far younger when she sat down in the spring of 1967 to testify before the Senate's subcommittee on poverty. Freckle-faced, hair held back under a gingham headband, Wright told Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and his colleagues what she had seen in the Mississippi Delta.

"People are starving," she told the committee. "They are starving! And those that get the bus fare to go North are trying to go North. There is absolutely nothing for them to do here. There is nowhere to go. . . ." She invited the senators to see for themselves "the empty cupboards and the people going around begging just to feed their children."

Weeks later, she got a call from Peter Edelman, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Kennedy's legislative assistant, who had come to advance the senator's Mississippi trip. He invited his fellow lawyer to dinner and they talked until midnight. "We had important work to do, but I was immediately struck not only by her intellect, but by how very beautiful she was," says Edelman.

And before long, they were in love.

Peter Edelman, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, was the son of a New Deal Democrat from Minneapolis. His parents were liberals and his father had worked hard in his state for civil rights, but when it came to his son's plans to marry a black woman, "There was a blind spot," says Edelman. "Although he got over it, that was not his finest hour."

In the summer of 1968, Peter and Marian married in a friend's Virginia backyard. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain and social activist, performed the ceremony. Justice Goldberg spoke about love and justice, and held the bride's flowers.

The newlyweds took a five-month trip around the world, stopping in such places as Africa, India and Vietnam. By then, most of their mentors were dead, Robert Kennedy just six weeks before the wedding. Both Marian and Peter had received Ford Foundation grants, hers to study how law can help the poor and his to find new work that would honor the spirit of the assassinated Robert Kennedy. Marian started what she called the Washington Research Project. Five years later, in 1973, it became the Children's Defense Fund.

Today, the nonprofit fund, which has never sought or received any government money, has an annual budget of $18 million, with more than 100 employees. In 1975, it lobbied successfully to give children with disabilities the right to a public education. In the mid-1980s, as poverty and homelessness increased, the fund's lobbyists won increased Medicaid coverage for poor children.

More recently, the fund won bipartisan support for health insurance for 5 million children with the 1997 State Children's Health Insurance Program. Edleman has spent much of the 1990s helping to build an army of child advocates through the Black Community Crusade for Children and the Stand for Children campaign, which brought 300,000 people last year to the Capitol to show their support for children's programs.

"Dear Lord, Be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small."

*

Although it has hung in every office ever occupied by the Children's Defense Fund, that gentle Irish child's prayer in no way reflects the urgency of Marian Wright Edelman's mission.

"The Lord wants us to do everything we can to help those who need help," she says, pulling a woolen scarf across her face as she charges head first into the cold Chicago wind, pausing only once in her discourse to ask if she was walking in the right direction. "There are too many children in this city, and in every city, who don't have a chance, not a chance. We've got to give our children hope. If not, they're lost."

At the invitation of her friend Deloris Jordan, Marian has left the ladies' luncheon at the Drake for what was scheduled to be a brief stop at the James R. Jordan Boys and Girls Club, the new $5-million day-care, clinic and after-school center built by the Chicago Bulls to honor Michael's father and Deloris' husband, who was murdered during a Florida carjacking.

"Can I sit with you? Please?" Marian whispers to a 3-year-old with a runny nose and a fistful of crayons. "Is that blue?"

The child nods but doesn't look up. "What's blue? Can you tell me?"

"Sky!"

"Right!" says Marian, reaching over to give the tiny girl a hug. "You're terrific!"

The woman who has been speaking out for three decades about the need for safe, accessible child care, marvels at the luxuriously equipped play room. "This is what every child needs. Full day care for one child in this country can easily cost $5,000 to $10,000 a year."

But few parents--or cities, counties or states, it seems--are willing to make the sort of investment in child care that the Chicago Bulls have. "I'm for mothers having the choice to work or to stay home," says Marian, "but child care has to be there for those who need it. That's a critical issue for next month when the first lady comes to help Mrs. Daley and Mrs. Jordan and the Children's Defense Fund help the children of Chicago."

The nod to Hillary Rodham Clinton is a natural one. That other Yale law grad had for years headed the board of the Children's Defense Fund. But because some children's advocates blame the Clinton administration's "welfare reform" package for sending many parents to work without providing care for their children, the Clinton reference seems awkward.

Peter Edelman was so distressed by Clinton's welfare program that he quit his post as assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services in protest. He is now a professor teaching constitutional and poverty law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Neither of the Edelmans has commented publicly on the damage done to their longtime friendship with the Clintons by the president's welfare agenda and his failure to offer Peter a promised judgeship.

Some friends believe that the men no longer speak to one another but that Hillary and Marian are "healing" their relationship. In any event, says Marian, the first lady "will never abandon her commitment to children. We count on her, and she knows that, and she always comes through."

"Here are two women totally devoted to very important causes," explains one longtime friend of both. "They love and care about children--and that includes their own, even though they've now flown the nest."

The three Edelman sons--Joshua, 28, a teacher; Jonah, 27, a children's rights advocate, runs the Children's Defense Fund's Stand for Children; and Ezra, 23, a researcher at CBS Sports--have all supported their mother's work, even when it meant she missed the occasional baseball game or school play. "It's true that I am a mother with some guilt about being away so much during their childhood," Marian says. "But this family has always been very grounded and very stable thanks to Peter, who was constantly there for the boys."

But back to the cause. "Do you know how few working parents can afford good child care? Just for example, families in California with both parents working full-time at minimum wage earn only $21,400 a year. You can't afford quality child care on that! You just can't."

Child psychiatrist and Marian Wright Edelman booster Robert Coles has attributed much of the success of the Children's Defense Fund to Marian's easy use of such powerful numbers to tell the story about children in need. "There's a faith in knowledge there, a John Milton kind of faith that the truth will somehow prevail," Coles told the New Yorker magazine.

The truth about children's suffering--whether it's how many live in poverty or how many have no health insurance or day care--is the currency of the children's advocacy movement. And Marian Wright Edelman has always believed that "if you tell people the truth, they'll do the right thing.

"And it is always right to do right for children."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE CONFERENCE

To attend events at the Children's Defense Fund's national conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center, contact organizers at (202) 662-3684. From 9 to 11 a.m. on March 28, there will be a community dialogue with Los Angeles children on issues of race and poverty, moderated by actress Anna Deavere Smith. The meeting is free and open to the public.

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