Marian Wright Edelman on Continuing King's Work

Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman tells The Root, "We do not have a children problem; we have an adult problem."

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Never mind the model of the "Tiger Mother," Amy Chua's controversial version of tough parental love pushing sometimes reluctant children to heights of achievement. Marian Wright Edelman's hopes are far more basic. The founder of the Children's Defense Fund has always been a fighter. In the week during which the country celebrated the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Edelman spoke to The Root about looking for some committed helpers to follow King's lead and join her crusade for the poor children she fears are being left behind.

Lamenting a "cradle to prison" pipeline and woeful rates of reading and computing skills for black and Hispanic children, Edelman praised the efforts that are working and sounded a call to action to lift the less fortunate among us. She cited "the breakdown of the black family and church and community," as she challenged the "adults who have gone AWOL." It's happening in the white community and all over, she said, but blacks are "at the bottom of the totem pole, and we've got to do something about it."

Edelman stopped in Charlotte, N.C., on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to acknowledge the city's successful and ever expanding CDF Freedom Schools program and its executive director, Mary Nell McPherson. (Edelman said she wished she could "clone" her and "send her all over the country.")

The program, with its focus on reading and literacy, combats the summer learning loss that is a leading cause of the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income children. A recent evaluation conducted by UNC Charlotte found that 90 percent of the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade participants in Charlotte Freedom School Partners at the very least maintained their reading levels, with about 65 percent showing moderate to significant gains.

"We really have got to say, 'not on our watch,' " Edelman said. She cautioned that we cannot do what King feared -- "buy into a burning house in the valleys of materialism" -- and spend more on tobacco and entertainment than books. "I don't care if that is the reflection of the greater society," she said. "We didn't get integrated into this for that."

Edelman refused to blame the troubled economy for the problems facing poor black children, as constituencies compete for funding from strained city and state budgets. "We've got all the resources we need to do what we've got to do," she said. "There's something's wrong with our priorities."

Edelman is "distraught" about the decision by a newly elected school board in Wake County, N.C., to return to neighborhood assignments that will mean less racial and socioeconomic diversity. (It has also drawn the criticism of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.)

"We are voting against our self-interest; we are voting against our professed values," she said. "It's downright un-Christian and downright unwise."

"They don't need all the celebrities on TV; they need someone who grew up in their community," she said, "and [has come] back." The Freedom School program has trained about 9,000 college students -- mostly black -- as teachers and interns. Edelman sees it as "a real feeder system to try to create a strong minority presence in our public schools." The CDF is testing a preschool pilot program in Marlboro County, S.C., that would eventually train at least 5,000 new young minority leaders, at least half of them black males.

Charlotte's Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is African American, stopped by the King Day Freedom Schools event to endorse a broad youth-employment program and the creation of additional after-school programs. He noted that in the last year, while about 4,000 young people under the age of 16 were arrested, 100 or fewer went through the city's employment program.