Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), is stepping down. One of the most recognizable activists for children’s rights throughout the 20th century, Wright Edelman will continue this work but stop all day-to-day responsibilities at CDF and assume the title of president emerita.
A South Carolina-native and daughter of a Baptist minister, Wright Edelman fulfilled her dying father’s wish for her to get a good education when she moved to Atlanta in 1956 to attend Spelman College. Her exemplary academic achievement soon earned her a Merrill Scholarship which allowed her to study abroad. She travelled to Sorbonne University in Paris, France and the University of Geneva in Switzerland and even studied abroad in the Soviet Union as a Lisle Fellow. Returning to Spelman her senior year, Wright Edelman then got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She was arrested in 1960 at the Atlanta City Hall when participating in one of the largest sit-ins of the movement. A year later she graduated from Spelman College as valedictorian. She was then accepted to Yale Law School as a John Hay Whitney Fellow and earned a juris doctor degree in 1963.
Wright Edelman would soon move to Mississippi, becoming the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar and started practicing law at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Mississippi office in Jackson. She served as director of this office for some time before moving to Washington, D.C. as counsel for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. During this time, she also contributed greatly to the organizing of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm.
In 1973, Wright Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund as a nonprofit voice for impoverished children, children of color and children with disabilities. She envisioned the organization as having the ultimate goal of improving federal child welfare and public education policies, at which it has been wildly successful. Two years after its founding, CDF lobbied successfully for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It was instrumental in the 1980 passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act as well. CDF has also contributed greatly to political efforts over the years to expand Head Start, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Child Income Tax Credit. The direct and indirect positive impact of CDF and Wright Edelman on our nation’s children and youth is almost immeasurable.
In a message posted to CDF’s website Wright Edelman wrote, “I am proud of CDF’s groundbreaking work over the past 45 years and the significant progress we have made for millions of children and families, but there is still much work to be done. I look forward to supporting the Board of Directors in the search for a new President to lead CDF into its next chapter; someone who is committed to taking on the challenges children face today and those that will emerge in the future.”
Marian Wright Edelman officially steps down from leading the Children’s Defense Fund effective Dec. 31, 2018. Max Lesko, current chief of staff, will assume responsibilities of leading CDF as its national executive director while the board of directors conducts its search for a new leader.