By Marian Wright Edelman
“None of us had any real education in social change. I was a biology major and a preacher. And yet we found ourselves in positions where we had to change the world . . . and what you will find is that it is easy if you listen to that still, small voice within. That’s where you hear God.”
Those wise words were shared recently by civil rights warrior and former Atlanta mayor, congressman and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young with nearly 2,000 college students and teachers gathered to prepare to conduct summer Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® programs. They are literacy rich child empowerment programs for pre-K-12th grade students to staunch summer leaning loss.
Andy Young reminded all of us how critical it is to find significance and purpose in one’s life’s work—one worth living and dying for: “Now, Dr. King used to tell us all the time, ‘You’re going to die, but you don’t have anything to say about where you die, how you die, when you die. The only choice you have is what it is you die for.’ So each day you need to chart your life so that if your life were taken on that day, people would say, ‘This is what he gave his life for’ or ‘This is what she gave her life for.’”
He said that as young people already committed to serving as educators and mentors and advocates for children, they were already on their way: “If you listen to what’s going on in the news, it’s easy to despair and give up. But you are God’s children . . . You are vessels of the love of God or you wouldn’t be here. Somebody loved you somewhere and told you you were somebody. And because of that, at least for a little while, you have enough dedication to stop whatever else you were doing, to come here to try to share your blessings with others.”
Andy Young emphasized that allowing a positive purpose to direct your path can be much more powerful than just having a plan.
“I didn’t want to go to Congress. I didn’t want to go to the U.N., but going to the United Nations—I told Jimmy Carter, I said, ‘Look, if it comes to a choice between the State Department and what Martin Luther King taught, I’m not going to listen to the State Department. I really would rather stay in Congress,’ and he said, ‘No. That’s why we need you at the U.N., because we need to take some of the vision of human rights from Martin Luther King and the nonviolent movement, and we need to share it with the world.’”
I have shared that vision.
After I was arrested with about 90 other Black college students during my senior year at Spelman College in March 1960 for helping organize and participating in student sit-ins at Atlanta’s racially segregated restaurants—I got arrested for sitting in the restaurant at Atlanta’s City Hall—I wrote in my diary when I returned to Spelman’s campus: “SOMETHING WORTH LIVING AND DYING FOR!” I never lost that conviction—especially during the four years I served in Mississippi as a civil rights lawyer during and after the 1964 Freedom Summer Project.
Although I never cranked up my car in the morning without leaving the driver’s door open having been instructed that if a bomb had been planted I had a chance that way of being thrown from the car injured rather than killed, and occasionally realized a bullet had whizzed by into a wall just passed, these things were not paralyzing. It’s amazing how you learn to live with danger if you feel you’re doing the right thing and connected to a higher presence.
I marveled repeatedly at the courage I could not hope to match of poor Black Mississippians, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders, and the young civil rights workers in Mississippi—Black and White—who served in the Freedom Summer project and day in and day out risked their lives for justice.
I hope and pray that a new generation of young people in America and around our world will catch the passion for justice and engagement and find their own calling to end indefensible child poverty, racism, ill health, illiteracy, unjust incarceration, violence plaguing our nation and world, and greed.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.