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July 27, 2020

Marian Wright Edelman's Brand of Activism and the Long Pursuit of Voting Rights

CRSJ Summer Intern Angela Li

Over the past week, as America mourned the loss of two civil rights giants against the backdrop of the escalating situation in Portland, the legacy and contemporary moment of the civil rights struggle were once again thrown into sharp relief. The career of Marian Wright Edelman — who is the 2020 Recipient of the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award — draws an illuminating throughline between the fervent activism of the 1960s and the fight that must still continue today. 

Marian Wright Edelman, as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, testifies before Congress about the government's anti-poverty program in 1967.

Marian Wright Edelman, as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, testifies before Congress about the government's anti-poverty program in 1967.

Henry Griffin/AP

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, who passed away a half-day apart on July 17, were known for their bold activism and leadership during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Lewis, the 2019 Recipient of the Thurgood Marshall Award, was a founding member and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Vivian was the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Both battled Southern segregation as Freedom Riders, organized and attended countless sit-ins and marches, and persevered despite facing brutal white backlash against their efforts. 

A central goal of their activism was to bolster Black enfranchisement in the South. During Lewis’ tenure as chairman, SNCC and other key organizations like SCLC, NAACP, and the Congress of Racial Equality organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 to combat the state’s abysmally low rate of Black voter registration. It was there in Mississippi that Edelman joined the front lines of the movement. As an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, she and the rest of the LDF team tried over 120 cases that summer to protect the civil and legal rights of Black Americans.  

The national media attention garnered by Freedom Summer has been credited as the primary catalyst for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, despite this sweeping legislative victory, activists like Edelman knew that the fight was nowhere near over. Rather, sustained and ongoing advocacy was needed to ensure the social, economic, and political wellbeing of poor Black families and children in the Delta.

Nine years after Mississippi, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., where she served as President until 2018. In this role, she advocated tirelessly for the rights and welfare of poor children, children of color, and children with disabilities. Threads of her experience in the Civil Rights Movement are woven into the decades of work that followed, such as the CDF Freedom Schools, a free summer enrichment program for low-income families and children created in 1980. 

This CDF program is named for the original Freedom Schools established by the 1964 Freedom Summer project. That summer, students of all ages gathered in churches, on porches, and under oak trees to engage with subjects like Black history and civil rights that were wholly absent in Mississippi’s segregated public schools. Classes were taught by college student volunteers with the goal of increasing voter literacy, political organization skills, and academic achievement. Today, Edelman’s Freedom Schools continue the practice of cultivating literacy, civic engagement, and service-oriented leadership, as well as encouraging family development and caring for children’s nutritional and mental health. 

Each summer, CDF Freedom School students participate in a National Day of Social Action to raise awareness for an issue they are passionate about. The theme this year is #VoteBecause, a timely topic that comes at a critical juncture for democracy and voting in America. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent developments in voting rights have raised the stakes in an election year already fraught with tension. 

Marian Wright Edelman visiting families in Canton, Mississippi.

Marian Wright Edelman visiting families in Canton, Mississippi.

Photo by Monita Sleet for Ebony Magazine.

In April, a split U.S. Supreme Court refused to extend the absentee ballot deadline for Wisconsin’s primary election. In light of the state’s rising coronavirus death tolls, a federal court granted a six-day extension for counting absentee ballots, allowing more people to vote safely for the April 7 primary. However, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, potentially disenfranchising thousands of voters and increasing the rate of infection. 

The Court voted with the same 5-4 margin in July to block a lower court’s order that would have relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama and increased the ease of absentee voting for voters who are disabled or 65 or older. The District Court for the Northern District of Alabama ruled against election officials in three counties, preventing them from enforcing ID requirements that voter groups said posed an unlawful burden. The Supreme Court, however, blocked the ruling and forced those most vulnerable to the coronavirus to choose between their health and civic duty in the July 14 primary runoff election. 

Most recently on July 16, one day before Lewis and Vivian’s passing, the Court once again curtailed voting rights, this time specifically affecting people with felony convictions in Florida. Ever since a 2018 referendum granted the right to vote to felons, the battle for enfranchisement has continued in the state legislature and the courts. The latest twist in the saga came when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary order that blocked felons from registering or voting unless they have completely paid all the fines and fees associated with their sentence. In a state where one in five Black eligible voters are disenfranchised by felon voting restrictions and a punitive carceral system, the legislature’s attachment of financial conditions to voting and the Supreme Court’s refusal to intervene recall the poll taxes and other anti-Black franchise tactics of the Jim Crow South. 

These ongoing developments demonstrate that barriers to enfranchisement remain firmly in place and are still being litigated today. The groundbreaking strides made by civil rights veterans like Edelman, Lewis, and Vivian built an invaluable foundation that must be diligently maintained and actively carried forth. The new challenges to voting — COVID-19, the changing role of technology in campaigns and elections, and faltering confidence in the legitimacy of democratic institutions — must also be met head-on. 2020 is a crucial year for protecting voting against unprecedented threats, but it is also a year for reckoning with the entrenched inequalities and inequities that have disenfranchised Black voters, other voters of color, and poor voters for more than a century. Marian Wright Edelman’s lifelong advocacy serves as an admirable model for preserving the roots of historical successes in present-day activism. The scourges of systemic racism, anti-Blackness, and police brutality have persisted and taken on more covert, insidious forms over time, and it will require Edelman’s brand of sustained, long-term dedication to carry on the good fight.