Marian Wright Edelman, a lifelong advocate for children, the poor and civil rights, will transition from president of the Children’s Defense Fund to the new role of president emerita in the Office of the Founder, the fund’s board of directors announced Wednesday.
In her new capacity, Edelman will focus her energies on building a lasting movement for children to end child poverty and inequality through servant leadership development at key spiritual retreats and convenings at CDF’s Haley Farm.
“Our mission to Leave No Child Behind and ensure that every child has a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage into adulthood has never been more important than it is today during these perilous times for children and for our nation,” Edelman said. “I will shift away from the day-to-day responsibilities of running a leading, national organization, and in my new role, I will focus all my energies towards building a movement to end child poverty and inequality.”
In 1968, Edelman founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of CDF. For two years she served as director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University. In 1973, she founded CDF to advance the mission to Leave No Child Behind. Under her leadership, CDF became the nation’s strongest independent voice for children and families, constantly challenging the United States to invest in policies and programs to improve the odds for all children and training many of the country’s most effective servant leaders for children.
“This organization would simply not be, were it not for Marian Wright Edelman, and it would not have created the framework of federal and state laws that now protect children and families had she not led us every day for the last 45 years,” said said CDF board Co-chair Angela Glover Blackwell. “All we are and all we do starts with her, and that is a tremendous legacy, but she is not done yet and we, thankfully, are not yet done receiving the benefit of her wisdom and leadership.”
Edelman, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, began her mission in the mid-1960s when, as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1968, she moved to D.C. as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began organizing before his death.
“I first heard of Marian back in 1960, when she was a student. And people would say, ‘Ask Marian. Get in touch with Marian,’” said John Lewis, Georgia congressman and civil rights icon. “She emerged as a leader. Brave, courageous, just smart. She wanted to do something not just about civil rights but about children — all children. I don’t know what our country would be like without the Children’s Defense Fund. If Martin Luther King Jr., could come back and see what Marian Wright Edelman is doing, he’d be very proud.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a onetime attorney and board chair for CDF, called Edelman a “crusading legal activist devoted to children, service and social justice.”
“I have been inspired by Marian Wright Edelman since I first met her in 1969. … Watching and working with her is one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me,” Clinton said. “The mission of the Children’s Defense Fund is more important today than ever, and as she transitions to this new role and continues her mission to end childhood poverty in America, I look forward to watching her guide CDF with the same grace, determination and grit that she’s embodied her entire life.”
Effective Dec. 31, CDF’s Chief of Staff Max Lesko will become CDF’s national executive director, overseeing day-to-day operations and reporting to the Board of Directors. Lesko joined CDF in early 2017 after serving in the Obama Administration as Chief of Staff for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, He also served as an assistant counsel in the Office of White House Counsel and domestic director in the Presidential Personnel Office.