Children’s Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman called Friday for people to gather like fleas — “strategic fleas” — as part of a movement to end child poverty.
“We don’t need ‘big dogs’... Not everyone needs to be the front leader,” Edelman said during an MLK event at Florida International University. “We get paralyzed and caught up wanting to make a big difference. But the little things add up... Dr. King never started a single movement in his life. He responded to communities... We need to be bubbling up.”
Edelman was the keynote speaker at the school’s 25th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Breakfast, attended by more than 500 FIU students, faculty and staff, and community members. The three-hour celebration at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique main campus was among numerous events organized by the university this month to honor King. Friday’s event included a video describing the history of the breakfast, musical performances by students and alumni, and the announcement of the winners of FIU’s MLK essay contest and its annual MLK Peace & Service Awards.
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Edelman directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement, and served as legal counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign under King. She founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, an organization that advocates for federal and state support for poor, disabled and neglected children.
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Edelman, 76, criticized Congress for investing too much in the military and not enough in programs to respond to the 15.5 million children living in poverty. With an investment of $77 billion a year, child poverty can be reduced by 60 percent, she said. She added that failure to invest will be even more expensive. Mass incarceration rates and loss of productivity cost the government a half-trillion dollars, she said.
“We need to grab these babies at birth and make sure they’re ready for school... A state that does not stand up for its children does not stand up for anyone,” she said. “We did not make two classes of children.”
Wearing pendants with the faces of civil rights activists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth, Edelman peppered her speech with memories of the civil rights movement. The day after King was killed, she encouraged African American children not to lose hope. She remembered a boy who told her that he had no future because he had nothing to lose.
“I will spend the rest of my life trying to prove that boy’s ‘truth’ wrong,” she said.
Edelman told the audience of how she attended King’s last sermon at National Cathedral in Washington in 1968, where he told the parable of Lazarus and Dives. Dives, a rich man, went to hell “because he didn’t realize that his wealth was the opportunity to bridge the gap” between him and Lazarus, she said.
Communities — particularly schools and churches — should take the lead in creating resources for vulnerable children.
Edelman called on society to “... open those doors, compete with those drug dealers” who often attract neglected children.
Addressing African Americans who fall victim to gun violence, she said there have been 16 times more boys lost to gun violence since 1968 than all of those who were ever lynched.
“We gotta raise our voice on the violence of guns and the violence of poverty... to save our children, to save our community, and to save ourselves,” she said, adding “We don’t have a money problem in America, we have a voice problem.”
She attributed her drive for justice to her family and community, growing up around “just god-fearing folks who loved children.”
“I’m not eloquent like Sojourner or Booker T. Washington,” she said. “But I care.”
And she reminded the room that King, although an iconic leader, was also human. He admitted to his co-workers when he felt depressed or discouraged, but he “lived by conviction rather than conformity.”
He “laid out a road map for us” with his peaceful civil disobedience, she said, emphasizing how people should be celebrating King less and following this path more. For Edelman, caring about social injustice is the first step to making a difference.
“Do not get worried or intimidated when we go through turbulent times,” she said. “There’s not going to be another Dr. King, but there are many of us.”