Marian Wright Edelman Gives Crown Lecture in Ethics

In this presidential campaign season, “Our biggest national security threat is the status of our children,” Marian Wright Edelman said on Thursday. With 16.4 million poor children, the U.S. child poverty rate is the highest in the developed world. 

Edelman, co-founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, gave the Crown Lecture in Ethics to a full house in the Sanford School’s Fleishman Commons. She said advocating for children should be the next great social movement in America, and children should be involved in it.

“We all must become movement builders. Some are waiting for Dr. King to come back, but we’re it,” said she. During the civil rights movement, children were on the front lines, she said, bearing the brunt of the fight to desegregate schools, including Ruby Bridges and a family in Drew City, Miss., that she represented in court.  Eight children from that family were the only black children to attend the white schools in their town and all eight went on to college.

Citing religious leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim that the test of morality for a society is how it treats its children, “We flunk,” Edelman said.  She supported this grade with a list of dismal facts about children in America: every 1.5 seconds a child is suspended; every 17 seconds a child is arrested; every 30 seconds a child suffers corporal punishment, every 67 seconds a child is born without health insurance.  The Affordable Care Act has improved the health insurance rate, she pointed out.

The education achievement gap and the “cradle to prison pipeline” are leading to a resegregation of society that has her deeply worried. Edelman blamed zero tolerance policies in schools for offenses to common sense such as expelling children for truancy. “We need to stop criminalizing children,” she said and shift our priorities. “North Carolina spends 3.8 times more on prisoners than on schoolchildren,” she said.

Edelman said she was raised for advocacy work. Her father was a minister and her parents took in 12 foster siblings, which she did not always appreciate as a child. “One morning I work up and found an orphan in the room with me and she had been given one of my two pairs of shoes,” she said.

During the question and answer session at the end of the talk, Edelman fielded questions on the Chicago teacher strike, charter schools and budget cuts to children’s programs on the state and federal level.  Her take on the Chicago strike was to focus “not on blaming teachers, but on what children need and holding the adults accountable.” She called public charter schools a “10 percent solution” to the problems of public schools, in providing competition and new models for programs.