Interview with Marian Wright Edelman

What was it that allowed that generation to play these sophisticated skilled roles at organizing a social movement?


We had a passion in the '60s in that generation. I got that, we were angry. But, so had, a, had been taught by our parents that the world had a lot of things wrong with it and that you were obligated and could change it. And our adults, even though the, all of our lives from the outside, was, was ugly. You know tell us we were worth, weren't much very, worth very much, tell us that we couldn't, ah, you know, succeed like White children could. Our parents said it wasn't so and our teachers said it wasn't so and our preachers said it wasn't so and we therefore internalized the fact that it wasn't so. And so from the time I was a little girl, I was taught that I could change things. And I lived with adults who didn't have a whole lot of money or a lot of education but who made it clear that we could change the world we were in. And so when I went off to Spelman College, ah, and I again heard role models in chapel. We heard everybody, I mean, Martin King was through chapel, you know, Benjamin Mace[SIC] taught us everything about how to act and how to dress but the message was that you can do anything, you can be anything as one person. And there was never a time in my life, ah, in that segregated prison of a small, rural town when I did not know that I was going to change segregation, ah, and I certainly always knew that I was responsible for helping to change it and so when the sit-in movement came or when a Martin came to kind of ignite, ah, the passions that were already there. I mean, you know, everything is in timing. I mean I got mad one night when I was a freshman in Atlanta, ah, this was in 1956 when I just, didn't want to go, get up and go to the back of the bus. And there were endless incidences like that by individual kids or other kids. Spelman girls used to go down the State Legislature once a year, just to get thrown out. Just to let them know we were there. And we'd come and sit in the galleries. The legislature would stop. They'd tell the marshal to remove those girls. But we were making our point. And so, you know, all of our lives we were taught to struggle and taught that we as one person could make a difference but we saw people making a difference. You know when I went off to college, ah, there were three or four women in my congregation whom I'm still trying to be as good at. And there are three or four women in Mississippi who are like them that I'm still trying to be as good at. And there's Miss T. Kelly, there's Miss Lucy McQueen, there's Miss Nancy Reese and Miss Kate Winston. These were uneducated women but who were kind to kids, when I went off to Spelman, you know. And they always made me feel that I was going to get the education they never got. Ah, they used to send me these, these, these shoe boxes full of chicken and greasy dollar bills. And always made it clear that I would make a difference, ah, but, you know, they made a difference in their one-on-one way. And when you saw one little kid down at Spelman or Ruby Doris Smith, ah, went out there to plan a sit-in demonstration. All it takes is caring, ah, determination, ah. It had never occurred to me that I was going to go to law school, never, never. I was a pre med student and I was a music major. And one day, I was in a sit-in movement. I went down to the local NAACP office to volunteer and I saw all of these complaints that had come in from poor Black people all over Georgia, that no lawyer could respond to because they didn't have the money and there weren't enough lawyers. And I asked myself, what in the world am I doing thinking about, as I was at the time, going to study 19th Century Russian Literature. I didn't want to teach. I wanted to stay in the south. And although I absolutely hated law school and hate the law, it was clear that what was needed was lawyers. And so I think it's passion and confidence.