On Sept. 30, friends and supporters of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) will gather at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to celebrate CDF’s 40th anniversary and honor our best known alum, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was a law student with CDF’s parent organization, the Washington Research Project, and joined CDF as a young staff attorney right out of law school. When she moved to Arkansas she began a state child advocacy organization and became a CDF board member and then board chair until she became First Lady.
She continued to be a champion for children, women, and families as First Lady, as a U.S. Senator, and as Secretary of State. I am very proud of her and the thousands of young servant leaders who have enriched CDF’s work over the years and are serving and enriching the nation across many sectors at the highest policy and community levels. We will highlight some of them including representatives of the 125,000 children and college mentors from CDF Freedom Schools®; the over 800 courageous high school youths who overcame family and community violence, homelessness, abandonment, and more and received Beat the Odds® college scholarships; the thousands of Emerging and Young Advocate Leadership Training participants; interns; and former staff who are serving and making a huge difference in the lives of countless children and families and to our nation. Many are leading major federal, state, and local agencies and private sector, philanthropic, faith, educational, and community institutions.
CDF is the child of the transformative struggles for civil rights and economic and social justice in the 1960s. This 40th CDF anniversary year marks the historic 50th anniversary of many benchmarks in America’s struggle to live up to its creed enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and overcome its huge birth defects built into the implementation of our political and economic system: Native American genocide, slavery, and exclusion of women and non-propertied White men from America’s political process. We have come a long way but these deep seated cultural, racial, economic, and gender impediments to a just union challenge us still. We must remain vigilant in rooting them out and moving ahead as many attempt to move us backwards. We must learn from our history and build on the hard earned struggles we commemorate this year, including:
- Birmingham’s nonviolent campaign instigated by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and its Black citizens which toppled that city’s Jim Crow laws, aided by the heroic Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Sickened by scenes of police dogs and fire hoses attacking children, President John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent a landmark Civil Rights bill to Congress enacted after his death with President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership;
- The assassination of Medgar Evers, which unleashed a courageous series of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizing campaigns across the South and in Mississippi’s closed society to secure Black citizens’ right to vote. The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and Freedom Schools led by my young peers and courageous local Black people brought me fresh out of law school to practice law in Mississippi, and planted the seeds for CDF’s founding and today’s CDF Freedom Schools program, which has instilled a love of reading and sense of empowerment in children and youths who learn they can make a difference like the countless children who knocked down the walls of the South’s racial caste system;
- The March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared not only his dream but reminded us of our nation’s unfulfilled promissory note millions of children and families still struggle to cash. Dr. King would be appalled that 46 million Americans, including 16.1 million children, are poor today and that hunger and homelessness blight our rich land;
- The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killing four little girls — a forerunner of child gun violence that has stolen 166,000 child lives since this tragedy. Seventeen times more Black children have died from gun violence since 1963 than the recorded lynchings of Black people of all ages in America between 1882 and 1968;
- The assassination of President John F. Kennedy which provoked Dr. King to decry the pervasive culture of violence in America.
This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign — Dr. King and Robert Kennedy’s last campaign — seeking to make visible the plight of the poor and to build a multiracial poor people’s movement to end poverty and hunger in America through jobs and income and a stronger nutrition safety net.
CDF’s parent organization, the Washington Research Project (WRP), began in March 1968 with a fellowship from the Field Foundation to study how to establish an effective voice for poor and minority citizens in the nation’s capital. WRP became counsel and federal and Congressional liaison for the Poor People’s Campaign, and went on to become a pioneer in the public interest law movement as we monitored federal programs for low-income families. And we worked especially hard to protect the new Head Start program which served thousands of the poorest children across the nation and in Mississippi which powerful segregationist members of Congress were bent on destroying.
All of these assaults on the most vulnerable and voiceless among us moved me deeply as it became increasingly clear that focusing on children and prevention and early intervention made more sense than waiting until problems became more difficult and costly to solve; that if children were protected, everyone would benefit; that if we were able to help children, we would also have to help their parents; and that if communities were safe, healthy, and fit for all children, they would be better for everybody.
So CDF was founded in 1973 to make all children the focus of national attention emphasizing that there were and are more poor White than Black, Latino, Native American, or Asian children although children of color tend to be disproportionately poor. But we always pay special attention to the most vulnerable and poorest children who have the least voice.
I am proud of the millions of children who have escaped poverty, gained access to health care, child care, Head Start, and permanent adoptive families, and the millions of disabled children who have gained a federal right to education in which we played a role working with others. But so much remains to be done if we are to keep moving forward and all our children can begin life on a level playing field – which is the promise of America. Children today face a budget guillotine called sequestration and regressive forces are seeking to dismantle the still inadequate safety net that tens of millions of Americans depend on to survive. That 16.1 million children are poor today and the younger children are the poorer they are is a shameful blight on the face of America which leads the world in Gross Domestic Product. That 60 percent of all our children in all racial and income groups and nearly 80 percent of Black and Latino children cannot read or compute at grade level in 4th and 8th grade is a grave threat to our nation’s economic future. That 75 percent of 17 to 24-year-olds can’t get into the military because of poor literacy levels, obesity, or prior incarceration is a huge threat to our future military security.
Unless we break up the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ lodged at the dangerous intersection of race and poverty, one in three Black and one in six Latino boys who are 12 years old today will go to prison in their lifetime and costly mass incarceration will continue to become the new American apartheid.
America has a great opportunity and responsibility to use her vast wealth and power to show the world what a truly multiracial democracy can be in a 21st century world desperately hungering for moral example and leadership. But it will require a major reordering of our current values and priorities and closing the indefensible, unjust racial, education, income, and wealth gaps which will undermine the last 50 years of social and racial progress.
A nation that does not stand for and invest in its children—all of them—does not stand for anything and will not stand strong in a globalizing world and when we are called to account by our Creator. On our 40th anniversary, CDF is committed to continue planting and watering the seeds for the next transforming nonviolent social justice movement our nation and children need by pursuing justice for children and the poor with urgency and persistence. I hope you will join us.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose 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. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.