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Marian Wright Edelman

As founder of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman has spent much of her life helping the nation's youth and their families. Born in Bennetsville, South Carolina, on June 6, 1939, Marian Wright was the youngest of five children. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Arthur Wright, Marian was taught that Christianity required service and that education was uppermost. Although the town of Bennetsville was segregated, Marian's father showed her that with a little positive action, anything was possible. Together the family and church built parks and soft drink stands for the town's black children, and set up a home for the black elderly. Upon his death, Arthur's last words to his daughter were, “Don't let anything get in the way of your education.” And she didn't. After receiving a Merrill scholarship, Wright studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, then received a Lisle fellowship and traveled to the Soviet Union. Her original plans for life were to enter the foreign service. After returning to Spelman in 1959, Wright became involved with the civil rights movement and decided that she wanted to study law. Wright graduated with a B.A. from Spellman College, and enrolled in Yale Law School, where she graduated in 1963. After graduation, Wright went to work for the NAACP Legal and Defense fund in New York, then moved to Mississippi where she became the first African-American woman admitted to the bar. Marian Wright Edelman While in Mississippi, Wright continued her work with the civil rights movement, focusing on racial justice issues. It was then she helped to set up the first Head Start Program in her community. In 1968, Wright married Peter Edelman, a civil rights lawyer and assistant to Robert F. Kennedy. The couple moved to Washington D.C. She began to work with the Poor People's Campaign and founded a public interest advocacy group called the Washington Research Project. The project lobbied Congress to expand Head Start and organize child and family nutrition programs. In 1973, the Washington Research Project became the Children's Defense Fund (CDF.) The CDF is the leading advocacy group for children in the United States. As president of the CDF, Edelman helped to decrease teenage pregnancy, increase Medicaid coverage for underprivileged children, and secure governmental funding for such programs as Head Start. From 1971 to 1977, Edelman served as a member of the Yale University Corporation, to which she was the first woman elected by alumni, and from 1976 to 1987, she chaired on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College. In 1987 Edelman wrote her first book, Families in Peril, which examined the effects of poverty on American families in the 1980s. That was the first of seven books she penned, for which she received the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award. Throughout her life, Edelman has received numerous awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, the Heinz Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

For additional famous women, see Important and Famous Women in America.