Marian Wright Edelman to headline 25th MLK Breakfast

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. Photo courtesy of Children's Defense Fund.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Photo courtesy of Children’s Defense Fund.

On Friday, Jan. 15, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Celebration will celebrate its 25th anniversary of the MLK Breakfast. The annual event has had a long list of notable speakers, from its very first Arthur E. Teele, Jr., a City of Miami Commissioner, to Reverend Bernice A. King, and former Mayor of Atlanta Judge Andrew Young.

To commemorate the silver jubilee, the MLK Breakfast will host keynote speaker Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Among numerous other achievements, Edelman also holds the honor of being the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi state bar. FIU News interviewed the civil rights lawyer and activist prior to her visit to learn more about how we can honor the legacy of Dr. King despite modern challenges.

FIU News: How has Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King influenced you personally?

Edelman: I first heard Dr. King speak in person at a Spelman College chapel service during my senior year in college. Dr. King was just 31 but he had already gained a national reputation during the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott five years earlier. He became a mentor and friend. Although I do remember him as a great leader and a hero, I also remember him as someone able to admit how often he was afraid and unsure about his next step. But faith prevailed over fear, uncertainty, fatigue, and sometimes depression.  It was his human vulnerability and ability to rise above it that I most remember.

“If I Can Help Somebody Along the Way” was his favorite song. He was an ordinary man who made history because he was willing to stand up and serve and make a difference in extraordinary ways as did the legions of other civil rights warriors in the 1950s and 1960s. We need to teach our children every day that they can and must make a difference too. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

Recently black student protests at universities across the nation have made headlines. In your opinion, what should campuses do to address the issues of racial bias being raised?

For many colleges and other institutions this work must begin with an honest look at their own pasts. More universities and institutions must engage in a thoughtful process of truth telling of their own and America’s history. College students, faculty and administrators seeking an honest historical accounting on their campuses are to be applauded. Only the truth will make us free and move us forward together.

As founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, what is your take on the Every Student Succeeds Act?

The new Every Student Succeeds Act begins a new era but without needed federal accountability and relying on hopes that all states will fulfill their crucial responsibility to educate all their children fairly and prepare them for work and life. Over the past 50 years – under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – too many states violated their responsibility to serve their poor and non-White children equitably, did not comply with the law and misused huge amounts of the funds intended for poor children for other purposes. With the loss of federal accountability in the new Act, I hope we will not see the mistakes of the past repeated and poor children fall further behind.

You’ve been quoted as saying we can test the morality of a society in how it treats its children. When you look at the treatment of children in the United States today, how does it reflect on us as a nation?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Protestant theologian who died opposing Hitler’s holocaust, believed that the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. We flunk Bonhoeffer’s test every hour of every day in America as we let the violence of guns and the violence of poverty relentlessly stalk and sap countless child lives. A child or teen is killed by a gun every three and a half hours, nearly seven a day, 48 a week.

More than 15.5 million children are poor and children are the poorest age group in America—the world’s largest economy. Children of color, already the majority of our youngest children, soon will be the majority of our children in 2020. Millions of them lack their basic needs for enough food, decent housing, health care and quality early childhood supports during their years of greatest brain development. And over six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, a majority of children of color are still waiting for a fair and equal chance to learn. A majority of all fourth and eighth grade public school students and more than 80 percent of black and 73 percent of Hispanic students in these grades cannot read or compute at grade level and face dim futures as a jobless landscape looms. They also lack assurance that their lives matter and are at great risk of being sucked into a prison pipeline.

As a follow-up to your previous answer, the Miami Herald reports that in 2015 30 children and teenagers were killed by gunfire in Miami-Dade County and more than twice that many have been shot. What changes do you think need to happen in a community in order to decrease gun violence?

Three years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut where a lone 20-year-old gunman wielding an assault weapon snuffed out 26 child and teacher lives, our nation has done shamefully little to protect children instead of guns. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show 2,525 children and teens died by gunfire in our nation in 2014; one child or teen death every 3 hours and 28 minutes. What is this moral perversity in our midst that values guns more than children and human life?

We cannot stay numb, cowed or intimidated by bullies who value profits over human life. We must urgently push policymakers to confront and end our national gun violence epidemic as the huge public health crisis it is. Insist political leaders support common sense universal background checks including checks on private and internet sales. Restore the assault weapon ban and limit the size of ammunition clips. Require that gun owners carry liability insurance. Promote the development of smart guns; and require guns be stored unloaded and locked in the home. And we must stop guns being the only unregulated consumer product in our nation while killing tens of thousands of children and adults every year.

A limited number of tickets are available for the MLK Breakfast. To purchase a ticket, please call Barbara Douglas at 305-348-2436.