Marian Wright Edelman

Who Mentored Marian Wright Edelman?

a photo of Marian Wright Edelman
A photo of Marian Wright Edelman

Marian 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.

Excerpted from The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors. Matilda Raffa Cuomo, Editor, with foreword by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.