Mentored Marian Wright Edelman?
Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's
Defense Fund (CDF), has been an advocate for disadvantaged
Americans her entire career. Under her leadership, the
Washington-based CDF has become a strong national voice
for children and families.
I went to Spelman College in Atlanta. It was a staid
women's college that developed safe, young women who
married Morehouse men, helped raise a family, and never
kicked up dust.
My history professor there, Howard Zinn, taught me the
value of questioning the status quo and illustrated
the power inherent in an individual. Professor Zinn
got us involved in the political climate of the times.
This was the South of the late 1950s, where the first
attempts at social and political change in the struggle
for civil rights originated.
Professor Zinn would take us outside the sheltered stone
wall of the Spelman gates to the realities of interracial
dialogues and protests. The activism we initially took
part in preceded the regional and national movements
that are usually referred to as the civil rights era.
One of our first actions was to protest the policy of
public library segregation. Protesters (predominantly
college students) walked into the Carnegie Library in
Atlanta asking librarians for such works as John Stuart
Mill's On Liberty or John Locke's An Essay
Concerning Human Understanding. Some asked for the
U.S. Constitution and others for the Declaration of
Independence. Using such tactics, the Atlanta Library
Board changed its segregationist policy. It was actions
such as these that led to further protests, further
questioning, and striving for basic American freedoms.
It was the beginning of a movement for many of us.
Professor Zinn was instrumental in helping me get a
fellowship for a junior year abroad. He had a lot of
faith in me as a young girl and felt that traveling
on my own would benefit me more than going with the
Smith or Sweetbriar groups.
I left the United States in 1958 and traveled through
Europe for fifteen months. My year abroad gave me the
confidence to take risks and follow my own path. It
made me more of an individual; it gave me a sense of
myself. It also exposed me to the possibilities of the
world. There was so much out there, so much to see and
experience. My year abroad was a very special time;
it was a time of awakening.
Professor Zinn responded to a yearning in the younger
generation to make a difference, and like all good teachers,
he brought out the best in people. He was concerned
with justice, and everyone around him caught his concern.
He was a very special man whose political activities
eventually got him fired from Spelman. He went on to
Boston University and became an outspoken critic of
the Vietnam War.
Well into his seventies, Professor Zinn remains an optimist.
He has been a prolific writer of numerous books, including
the controversial A People's History of the United
States and You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
He doesn't teach anymore, but is a very busy public
speaker. I am grateful to him for fostering in me the
belief that I could make a difference; it is something
I have carried with me ever since.
from The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent Americans
Recall Their Mentors.
Matilda Raffa Cuomo, Editor, with foreword by Sen. Hillary