Edelman, champion of civil rights, to speak at OCU 

click to enlarge Mary Wright Edelman
  • Mary Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman doesn’t understand barriers. You could say the same for her relationship with obstacles. Throughout her career as an activist and advocate, she has refused to be kept in her place.

With her calm demeanor and her quiet yet authoritative voice, she has earned her place among the greats as a champion of the underprivileged and a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Her dreams were big, and her accomplishments were even greater than she expected.

“My father believed in God, in serving others and in education,” she said.

Her father died when she was 14. Sadly, he missed the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that started the process of integrating schools, by one week. He emphasized how strongly he felt that education would lift her up to be anything she wished to be. He told her, “Never let anything get in the way of your education.” She took those words and her father’s legacy of helping others as her mission.

“We were taught that the world had a lot of problems but that we could change them, those of us who were given much had a responsibility to give back and service is the rent we pay for living,” she said.

She graduated from Yale with a law degree in 1963 and became the first black woman to be admitted to the Mississippi state bar. She went on to become a successful attorney in Mississippi, never failing to remember her “rent,” working with poor communities and advocating for those most often overlooked. She was a visible participant in the civil rights movement and even advised Martin Luther King, Jr.

She caught his attention as director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, helping countless people obtain equality and justice regardless of their race, education or income.

After the heady days at the center of the civil rights movement, Wright was not content to rest. She admits that we have come a long way since the days of segregated schools and color-specific drinking fountains, but we still have a way to go.

“Although we’ve come far, our work is far from complete,” she said. “What keeps me going every day is my belief that we can and will win the fight to make America live up to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and realize the dream of a level playing field for all.”

In the 1970s, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a national advocacy group for children and families.

“Growing up, I was richly blessed with parents and a black community who nurtured me and other children so that we could realize our God- given potential despite many negative messages of the outside segregated world,” she said.

She gives back this nurturing in many ways. Edelman, who is now in her 70s, lectures extensively and continues to be an inspiration for all generations.

Dr. Harbour Winn is the co-chair of the board that organizes the Distinguished Speakers Series for Oklahoma City University (OCU).

Edelman has been on the board’s speaker wish list for several years. The series, now in its 12th year, has hosted luminaries from various disciplines, including Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Jane Goodall and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The most impressive thing about the series, besides the people who come and speak, is that it is free and open to the public. Winn emphasized that this is part of the university’s mission as part of the community.

The speakers are chosen by a committee that consists of faculty, staff and students.

“I’ve been on the committee since its inception,” Winn said. “We meet regularly to decide who to invite ... it’s a committee out of the provost, Susan Barber’s office, and part of the success, I think, has been the continuity and the variety [of the committee]. We try to get a broad representation from the balance of students and staff.”

Winn cited Edelman’s staggering resume as only part of the reason the committee desired her to visit.

“She’s absolutely committed to the CDF in Washington, D.C., one of the largest groups of advocates for the rights of children,” he said. “She has such a broad range of experience for advocacy and activism.”

“Although we’ve come far, our work isn’t finished,” Edelman said when asked about the future of civil rights now that we are moving into a new era of equality for all. “The greatest threat to America’s national security comes from no enemy without but from our own failure to invest adequately and fairly in the health, education and sound development of all of our children.”

Print: Rule breaker; Armed with an education and her father's advice, Marian Wright Edelman has made the world a better place.

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