At Akris, we've always wanted to empower women by dressing them to leave their mark on the world. Which is why Akris is proud to honor Marian Wright Edelman, a true woman of purpose who dedicated her life fighting against systemic injustices and serving America’s most disadvantaged children.
As the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, Marian spent her youth tearing down the laws of segregation, alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Observing the impact of injustice on America’s most vulnerable firsthand, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973 to make sure every child has what they need to thrive.
Today, the Children’s Defense Fund is a nonprofit organization that champions policies and programs that lift children out of poverty, protect them from abuse, and ensure their access to health care and quality education.
Marian Wright Edelman is the perfect example of an Akris woman who is committed to making a difference and live a life with purpose.
We spoke to the Founder and President Emerita of CDF and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient about her ongoing fight for the children and youth who are often forgotten.
Children can't vote, yet their lives are directly affected by decisions adults make on their behalf. What made you decide to be their voice?
The day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, I went out into the riot-torn Washington, D.C., streets and into schools in neighborhoods scorched by flames to talk to children. I went to tell them not to be violent or loot and raid so that they would not get arrested and ruin their futures. A young black boy about 12 or 13 years old looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Lady, what future? I ain’t got no future. I ain’t got nothing to lose.” I’ve spent my life since then trying to prove this boy’s truth wrong in our powerful and wealthy nation. I had no idea how hard it would be for this child saw and spoke the plain truth for himself and millions like him in our economically and militarily powerful but spiritually anemic society.
You created the phrase Leave No Child Behind®. Can you explain the meaning of it to us?
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. To succeed children need stable homes, quality health care, ample nutritious food, good schools, safe neighborhoods, and access to resources and opportunities that enable them to reach their full potential.
But for too many of our children these basic building blocks for success are out of reach. That’s why we’re fighting to make sure every child in America has what they need to thrive and no child is left behind. Because we know fixing America’s systemic inequities begins with our children, we focus especially on poor children, children of color, and those with disabilities.
What is a piece of advice you live by?
I first heard Dr. King Jr. speak in person at Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel during my senior year in college. That morning he told us to always keep moving forward: “If you cannot fly, drive; if you cannot drive, run; if you cannot run, walk; if you cannot walk, crawl. But keep moving. Keep moving forward.”
Early in your career you worked with him as a lawyer for the Poor People's Campaign, and you were a civil-rights activist. Were you aware of the fact that you all were making history?
We knew that we were part of a transforming movement. I have always felt blessed to be born who I was, where I was, when I was. As a Black girl growing up in a small, segregated South Carolina town, I could never take anything for granted and never for a moment lacked a purpose worth fighting, living or dying for, or an opportunity to make a difference.
The action or decision you are most proud of?
There may be 30 or more laws that are on the books now that weren’t on the books when the Children’s Defense Fund began, from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) through today. I am so proud of all these laws. But I’m also proud of all the things that didn’t get repealed and the bad laws that didn’t get passed that we were able to help stop. Much effective advocacy is quiet behind the scenes work. You can get a lot accomplished if you don’t mind doing the hard scut work and letting other people take the credit.
Can you share with us what keeps you going? What inspires you every day to work on the behalf of people that are not heard?
I believe service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time. I wear a pair of medallions around my neck with portraits of two of my role models: Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. They represent countless thousands of anonymous slave women whose bodies and minds were abused and whose voices were muted by slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and confining gender roles throughout our nation’s history. When I think I’m having a bad day, I think about their days and challenges, and I get up and keep going.
Find out more about the Children's Defense Fund here.