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Marian Wright Edelman


Mr. President, I have the honor and pleasure of presenting Marian Wright Edelman, scholar; lawyer; builder of coalitions: and passionate advocate for the poor, abused, and disabled youth of our nation.

Marian Wright Edelman, through the Children’s Defense Fund that you established in 1973, you have fought our nation’s ignorance and indifference to the needs of our children and you have combatted our pessimism about the possibility of using social policy to improve their lives. Using facts — statistics meticulously gleaned, insightfully analyzed, and forcefully presented — you have made visible the invisible, given voice to the voiceless, and forced our nation to address seriously the needs of poor families and their 12.6 million children.

You were reared in a small segregated town in South Carolina, but heeding the advice of your father, a Baptist minister, you have devoted your life to service. While attending Spelman College, you began your struggle against legal barriers to full participation of African-Americans in our society by encouraging other “ladies of Spelman” to join in a sit-in at the racially segregated lunch counters in Atlanta. Later, while attending Yale’s Law School, you spent the summer of 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi, where you participated in a peaceful march that was met with the teeth of police dogs. There you experienced the futility of opposing a hostile legal system alone and without legal credentials. But you were not defeated.

Upon graduation from Yale you returned to Mississippi where, as the first African-American woman admitted to the bar, you used your legal skills to free countless demonstrators from jail and your organizational acumen to help form a coalition that brought Head Start programs to your state despite powerful opposition. In 1968, when only 27 years old, you made a visiting Senate Subcommittee see the misery of poverty and hunger in the rural

South, and, when you subsequently moved to Washington, D.C., you used your newly established Washington Research Project to make the nation’s lawmakers hear of the needs of the poor and powerless. As the nation began to hear your voice, recognition of your contributions followed when Smith College awarded you the first of the more than 30 honorary degrees that you have received.

In the early 1970s, while director of Harvard University’s Center for Law and Education, you founded the Children’s Defense Fund. Fueled by your passionate concern for children and adolescents, you used your scholarly and organizational skills to make the nation hear and respond to the needs of our youth. In a political climate ranging from indifference to hostility, you marshalled facts and forces to make us see the plight of the poor and to retain and expand much-needed programs.

Today, as the programs you championed ease the burden of poverty for millions, you continue your courageous effort to articulate dreams for a more compassionate future for all our children. As you yourself said, “It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. … Not failure, but low aim, is sin.” Marian Wright Edelman, your visions have helped us to see more clearly.

Mr. President on behalf of the trustees, faculty, students, and staff of Clark University, I request that the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, be conferred upon Marian Wright Edelman.