But she got her start in Mississippi in the early 1960s, where she witnessed extreme poverty firsthand as a young civil-rights lawyer, the first African-American woman to pass the bar in that state.
Now 74, Ms. Edelman remembers well Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union address 50 years ago calling for an “unconditional war against poverty,”
“It was a marvelous speech,” she says, adding that the president “brought in the tie between race and poverty,” had an ambitious vision, and won concrete legislation.
In Mississippi, Ms. Edelman helped start one of the War on Poverty’s signature programs, Head Start, even though the state refused to take the federal money. She worked with the Child Development Group of Mississippi, an alliance of civil rights and church groups that applied for and received money to operate the state’s Head Start program.
But Mississippi’s segregationist U.S. Senator John Stennis objected to the new group, Ms. Edelman recalls, so it had to wage several battles in Washington to keep its funding. The Child Development Group lasted for just a few years, but other organizations took over Mississippi’s Head Start effort, which survives to this day.
By providing early-education services to thousands of poor black children, Head Start gave parents a “whole different image of what their children could be and do,” Ms. Edelman says.
In 1967, Ms. Edelman led a delegation of U.S. senators, including Robert F. Kennedy, to visit children and families in the Mississippi Delta. She did not expect to like the senator, she writes in her memoir, Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors, considering him “tough, arrogant, and politically driven.” But she says that image dissolved “as I saw him profoundly moved by Mississippi’s hungry children.”
Ms. Edelman says Senator Kennedy urged her to tell Martin Luther King Jr. to bring the poor to Washington to make their plight visible. “When I told him what Robert Kennedy had said, Dr. King’s eyes lit up, and he called me an angel sent by God,” she wrote. He then began working with other civil-rights leaders to create the Poor People’s Campaign, which included a march on Washington and a tent city on the National Mall in 1968.
Marian Wright also worked closely with one of Senator Kennedy’s aides, Peter Edelman, in Mississippi. She hadn’t expected to like him, either, imagining a “cigar-chomping, arrogant young know-it-all.” But she ended up marrying him. Mr. Edelman, a poverty expert, is now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
Ms. Edelman’s Head Start work inspired her to launch the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. Fifty years after President Johnson started his crusade, her organization says 20 percent of American children still live in poverty.
She says government safety-net programs like food stamps, housing subsidies, health care, and tax credits have lifted many children out of extreme poverty.
But, she says, “we still don’t have equality of opportunity as well as equality of outcome.”
President Johnson laid the groundwork, she says, but it’s time for the next “transforming movement.”
“It’s just taken longer, but we’ve made huge progress in 50 years. Now we’ve got to finish the job.”
Learn more about Ms. Edelman’s career and early work in the video above.