Marian Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund

Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund

Research Project of Prof. Dr. Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson


From Civil Rights to Children’s Rights:

A History of Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund



The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) was established by the African American civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman in 1973. Its mission is to improve the living conditions of children and young people in the United States, and in pursuit of that goal it supports research, engages in political lobbying, and runs social welfare programs.


A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Mrs. Edelman was among the leading figures of the civil rights movement during the 1960s and was a principal organizer of the Poor People’s Campaign. From her experiences in those movements, she became convinced that continued pursuit of her goals would require direct contact and cooperation with governmental institutions in Washington, DC. In 1968, Mrs. Edelman moved from Mississippi to the national capital and launched the Washington Research Project (WRP), which sought to gauge the effectiveness of recently enacted federal laws on racial equality and social welfare at the state and local level. The project uncovered a diverse array of administrative irregularities, but only in rare cases did its efforts result in redress. Mrs. Edelman therefore launched the Children’s Defense Fund in May 1973 in the hope of creating a new coalition of progressive forces:


I’d learned the importance of being highly specific in my goals, and I got the idea that children might be a very effective means of broadening the base for change. The country was tired of the concerns of the sixties. When you talked about poor people or black people you faced a shrinking audience. That was really the beginning of looking at children and their unmet needs as a new way to build a coalition for social change.[1]


Martin Luther King Jr., a dear friend and major role model of Edelman, had often called on his followers to speak out on behalf of the weak and defenseless, “to be a voice for the voiceless.” Children undoubtedly count among the voiceless: they cannot vote or put forward their demands or organize for action. Through CDF, Mrs. Edelman has sought to use concern for the well-being of the coming generation to create a broader basis for social justice – and in so doing she was acting fully in line with King’s ideas.


The Children Defense Fund can thus be understood as an organization that emerged directly from the spirit of the African American civil rights movement. It sought to pursue that movement’s goals by new means and methods after class protest measures – boycotts, sit-ins, protest marches, demonstrations – had lost the power to shape public opinion and political decision-making. In this respect, CDF stands as an especially striking example of the institutionalization of the social protest movements of the 1960s.


Throughout the last four decades, CDF has become one of the most renowned child welfare organizations in the United States, and Edelman has been bestowed with honors ranging from the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and, most recently, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal of Citizen Leadership. Nevertheless, the Children’s Defense Fund has not been the subject of scholarly attention and – besides a couple of children’s books - there is also up to now no scholarly historical biography of Mrs. Edelman in existence. My research project is envisioned as a step toward filing this lacuna. I intend to provide a comprehensive historical overview of the growth of the CDF and the development of its activities and programs, from the 1970s to the present (including, for example, the Head Start Initiative, the Black Community Crusade for Children, and the CDF Freedom Schools Program).


CDF’s political work, Marian Wright Edelman’s public role as well as the programs to fight child-poverty stand stand at the center of my investigation. That encompasses the cooperation with other non-governmental organizations, such as African American churches and teachers’ associations, as well as CDF’s often close but by no means conflict-free collaboration with the Congressional Black Caucus and other progressive members of Congress. An important aspect of the CDF’s activism that I will examine is its rich and diverse publication program (including poster campaigns). Another focus point will be the CDF’s relationship with the chief executive from Nixon to Obama, but also the internal development of the organization, its funding sources, staff-structure and decision-making processes.


The main source of information for my project are publications and records at the CDF’s headquarters and the Haley Farm Library. I have also conducted several interviews with Mrs. Edelman and members of her family as well as dozens of other interviews with former and current CDF staff members, with members of the US Congress and their staff as well as journalists and child care activists of other organizations, including both admirers and critics of Mrs. Edelman and her organization. Through an evaluation of these sources as well as secondary publications, legislative decisions, and statistical data, I hope to be able to gain an in-depth understanding of the day-to-day operation, long term development and significance of CDF as an agent of progressive social change.

The project’s goal is to publish an organizational history of the Children’s Defense Fund from its founding to the present time and to write a scholarly biography on Marian Wright Edelman.


[1] Edelman zit. in Calvin Tomkins, „Profiles: Marian Wright Edelman“ New Yorker, 27.3.1989, 67.