Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life. Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. The Children's Defense Fund's “Leave No Child Behind” mission is to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
“Marian Wright Edelman’s commitment to helping the disadvantaged is incomparable,” said Allan Stam, dean of the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “For more than four decades, she has championed the needs of children through her leadership at the Children’s Defense Fund. We are honored to welcome her to the University of Virginia for this special occasion.”
Edelman, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, began her career in the mid-1960s when, as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi. In l968, she moved to Washington, D.C., as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began organizing before his death. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children's Defense Fund. For two years she directed the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University and in l973 founded the Children’s Defense Fund.
Edelman served on the board of trustees of Spelman College, which she chaired from 1976 to 1987, and was the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation, on which she served from 1971 to 1977. She has received more than 100 honorary degrees and many awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings, which include “Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change”; “The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours”; “Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children”; “Stand for Children”; “Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors”; “Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind”; “I’m Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children”; “I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children”; and “The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation.”
She is a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation and the Association to Benefit Children, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Edelman is married to Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. They have three sons and four grandchildren.
Edelman will be the featured keynote speaker at Monticello’s commemoration of Jefferson’s 273rd birthday on April 13 at 10 a.m. Edelman will also speak at 3 p.m. in Nau Hall, room 101. Both events are open to the public.
On the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13 (known locally as Founder’s Day), the University of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation join together to present the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals to recognize achievements of those who embrace endeavors in which Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president, excelled and held in high regard. These medals are the highest external honors bestowed by the University of Virginia, which grants no honorary degrees. For more information on Founder’s Day, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals, and the recipients, click here.