I recently came across an old African proverb, scribbled in one of my journals. It says, "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled." As adults, we often lose touch with our inner child, forgetting what it was like to grow up in a world powerless, a world where warring factions of elephants (and donkeys) are the ones making life-altering decisions for you. Who is on the front lines fighting for children, being their voice? Three words: Marian Wright Edelman.
Marian, a world-renowned author and activist, has spent most of her life fighting against systemic injustices and serving our nation's most underprivileged children. As the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, Marian spent her youth tearing down the laws of segregation, alongside the many women who were the backbone of the civil-rights movement. Because she observed the residual impact segregation had on our nation's most vulnerable firsthand, Marian founded the nonprofit Children's Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973.
I met Marian ten years ago, and instantly I knew I was in the presence of greatness. She gives off a sense of quiet command that will simultaneously inspire and challenge you. At the time, I had been invited by the CDF to join a delegation of women traveling down to New Orleans to visit the children devastated by Katrina. We visited families stuffed inside FEMA trailer homes and receiving health care at a Lord & Taylor department store that had been converted into a hospital.
Touring the Ninth Ward broke my heart. Since the federal government was slow to react, Marian sent her foot soldiers to the ground to service those in need, providing schooling and health-care assistance. We ended our trip at the opening of a brand-new Freedom School, funded by CDF. Marian stood up, boldly calling us all to action, saying, "Service is the price we pay for living."
Shortly thereafter, Marian asked me to join the CDF board. I have since witnessed the tangible change she makes in the lives of so many children. Whether it's providing after-school programs and quality education to more than 125,000 pre-K–12 children through the CDF Freedom Schools program, awarding college scholarships to kids across the nation, or lobbying Congress to expand health care for children, Marian is tireless and unapologetic in her fight for the youth who are often forgotten. I spoke to her about this ongoing fight, criminal-justice reform, and her Harriet Tubman medallion.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: Children can't vote. They don't have a voice in our political process, and yet their lives are directly affected by decisions adults make on their behalf. You grew up in a generation where children were to be seen and not heard. What made you decide to be their voice?
Marian Wright Edelman: In my house, that was not the case. We were encouraged to state our views. We had thoughtful discussions around the dinner table. It was clear that there were problems all around us in my segregated small town, Bennettsville, South Carolina. Luckily, I had incredible parents who, when they saw a problem, didn't say, "Why doesn't somebody do something?" They would say, "Why don't we do something?" I also grew up with community co-parents who looked out for each other. They looked out for children and tried to be the hands of God. They tried to live their faith.
Much of what I do now stems from my rage at segregation and discrimination. I can't stand to see children not able to do anything, anybody not able to do what they can do. The daily lessons of exclusion, having hand-me-down books in schools, of seeing ambulances turn away and not give health care for people lying in the streets who are migrant workers. Everything I do today stems from that segregated existence.
JS: Early in your career you worked with Martin Luther King Jr. 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?
MWE: I wasn't thinking about history. I was thinking about how we were going to end segregation at lunch counters in Atlanta, Georgia. I sat down on buses; many people did before Mrs. Parks, or after Mrs. Parks, and didn't get arrested for whatever reason. We would have never thought about making history, we just thought: Here is our chance to get out our sense of rejection at this kind of racial discrimination. I don't know that there was a time that anybody growing up in the South wasn't enraged about being segregated and being discriminated against.
I get very upset with all of the crowd seekers today, and people out there trying to get on TV. It ain't about you. It's about trying to make the world more just for everybody. Dr. King didn't pick his leadership position. Most movements are not started by single people. There were these great women in Montgomery, Mrs. Parks was among them. Jo Ann Robinson [who organized the bus boycott] was among them. It's always these ordinary women and men of grace who have been waiting and seething and planning to change things that are unjust that bring movement.
JS: Does it frustrate you when you hear people minimize the civil-rights movement and try to shrink it down to a select few people?
MWE: It really drives me crazy, because it's the wrong concept of leadership. People want to pick the leader, and we are obsessed with celebrity and whoever is on the cover of this or that.
Mrs. Parks used to say, "Everybody looks at me because I sat down once in Montgomery, but the real hero is a woman named Septima Clark."She created the Citizenship Schools [where civil-rights activists taught basic literacy and political education classes]. She was from South Carolina, and she challenged the unequal pay for black women teachers, black teachers. In the simplest terms, she tried to respond to people's needs and created citizenship materials, which fueled the voter-registration campaigns and drives that changed the South. But very few people have heard of her.
JS: Right now we're witnessing a rapid flow of injustices. Everyone has been talking about police brutality. What should we be doing as community activists? Should we be pushing for more diversity in the recruitment of police officers? Should we change how they're trained? Should we have a community task force that polices the police?
MWE: It's a complicated problem, and we've got to change the culture. The core of the culture is racism and how black men are viewed. They've always been demonized and seen as threats in our culture. Another holdover from slavery. We've got to deal with that core root of racism and demonization of the upbringing of black men. Black women are not exempt by any means.
You have to have a fundamental change in the culture of policing, and who is the police person. How do they change? How do you learn from England and the other places, or Australia? In England, they don't carry guns on the whole. It's a different kind of mentality that does not demonize, and it's justified on race and income and class.
It's deeply rooted in the American psyche. Black men have always been viewed as the other, which leads to a different application of the laws. The current laws are an obscenity. More black men are locked up for using pot than white folk are for far more serious crimes.
There's no single, easy answer. Our government has to be held accountable for enforcing the law. Tamir Rice, the fact that they could exonerate that police person [who killed him], and Tamir's family was charged for the ambulance to take him [to the hospital]. It's inhumane.
JS: We have so many issues facing us today. Sometimes it's overwhelming. You wonder, what can we do about it? What's the call to action for my generation?
MWE: When I started out as an activist, the issues were much clearer. There's advantage to the new media, but on the other hand, you miss the ability to frame an issue that you had when there were just three TV networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. So the whole world could see the same police dogs. The same Bull Connor and his white tank. Now you've got narrow-casting. The media is all fragmented. It's so hard to get people to focus in a sustained way.
That's not to say that some of the new media is not advantageous. You can reach lots of folks with what Black Lives Matter is doing, mobilizing people. God bless them.
You add on to that the fact that we've moved from civil-rights issues that were overt to economic issues. Which require people to have to do something and they may have to sacrifice. As Dr. King said, it never cost anybody a dime to integrate the lunch counters. When you start talking about trying to deal with jobs and hunger and things that require investment, then that's really the tough stuff, because everybody wants to do right if it doesn't cost them anything.
JS: It always baffles me when I see the statistics that people are willing to spend so much on a child once they become a prisoner, but we're not willing to invest in that child's education when they were a pupil.
MWE: We're spending, on average, three times more for prison than for public-school pupils. That's the dumbest investment policy. It doesn't make us safer. It's created a new private industry, called Corrections Corporation of America. It's the new slavery. It came out of the drug laws and it really is something we're going to have to confront, but I don't see enough people up in arms about that. We need to be. The literacy level at Mississippi prisons? Fifth grade. Can't read, what are you going to do? If you've got a conviction rap, what are you going to do? It's a real crisis.
JS: Gun control is something that's really important to you, and you've said that this should be the chief public-health issue in America. You've asked, "Who put the NRA in charge of our national security?"Let me ask you: Who do you think put them in charge?
MWE: All of us who kept our mouths shut. In 1990, when we started the Black Community Crusade for Children, we were always talking about all children, but we paid particular attention to children who were not white, who were poor, who were disabled, and who were the most vulnerable. I thought I knew what the black community wanted and needed, but thank goodness we decided to hold focus groups and do it multigenerational. We were floored when we found the top issue of concern in all generations of black folk was gun violence.
Parents didn't think their children would live to adulthood, and the children didn't think they were going to live to adulthood. That's when we started our first gun-violence campaign. We've lost 17 times more young black people to gun violence since 1968 than we lost in all the lynching in slavery.
Guns are the only unregulated consumer product. We regulate toy guns and pajamas and toasters, but we don't regulate something that kills 30,000-plus people a year. It's obscene, and it's a money business. It's not just the NRA. It's also because of the gun manufacturers. We're a violent nation, and we need to confront it. This gun plague has to stop.
JS: You said it's a money issue, and it is hard to get people to get out there and vote. We're in an election season. A lot of young people I talk to that are just coming into the political process, they're suspicious of the system as a whole and feel we should just throw it out. What would you say to young activists who would rather put their energy into overhauling the system because they feel like trying to improve the current system is impossible?
MWE: I don't have much patience for things like that. I'd like to transform the system in very fundamental ways, but you've got to do that in every way that you can. You can't wait for some magic bullet or some magic politician or some magic anything to have that happen. You got to get out there and use your vote. None of the candidates are ever perfect, OK? Then you have to get them in there and you have to hold them accountable. You have to make noises.
People who don't vote have no call on political leaders! We all need to get out of our safety zones too. In addition to voting, we need to embarrass people who don't do the right thing. It's going to take citizen action. The civil-rights movement was completely impossible to achieve. But look at what ordinary people were able to do because they were willing to sacrifice their lives to stay with it. They didn't expect a political process to respond to them. They made the political process respond to them. To say "It's so bad I won't bother" is to give up on your children and give up on your future.
JS: Last question I want to ask you. You are an amazing woman. You are a wife, a mom, grandmother. As women, we can give a lot of ourselves and often forget to recharge. What do you do to refuel yourself?
MWE: I try to be a person of faith. I was raised that it's not about me. That you're never alone. Every day I wear my Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth medallions around my neck. When I think I'm having a bad day, I try to think about their day, and I get up.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell is an actress and activist who currently serves on the board of the CDF.