America's Best Leaders: Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Defense Fund

A civil rights pioneer and crusader on behalf of children.

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman

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Marian Wright Edelman is one of the world's premier advocates for children through her nonprofit Children's Defense Fund. But Edelman has long been a pioneer. In 1965, she was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. Later, she coordinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign. Edelman sat down with U.S. News's Amanda Ruggeri. Excerpts

I never thought I was breaking a glass ceiling. I just had to do what I had to do, and it never occurred to me not to. I've always hated being hemmed in or seeing anybody being hemmed in. Even when I was the smallest child, I couldn't bear being told I couldn't drink at a so-called white drinking fountain.

One defining experience was running out in the middle of the night with my father. There was a car wreck—a migrant family had collided with a truck. The truck driver was white, and the workers were not. The ambulance came, and turned around when they saw the truck driver was not hurt. That's one of those things you just don't ever forget.

It never occurred to me that I was not going to challenge segregation. My father always said that if you follow the need, you'll never lack for a useful purpose. And so I did. I hadn't planned on going to law school. I wanted to study 19th-century Russian literature. But I got mad one day when I went down to the NAACP and saw all these people who didn't have lawyers. The white lawyers wouldn't take cases. So I applied to law school—hated it, but I stayed because it was the right tool then.

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