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July 01, 2005

Human Rights Hero: Peter B. Edelman

by Stephen J. Wermiel

Peter B. Edelman’s name is near the top of any list of people who have worked to make poverty and economic justice front-burner issues in the United States. The Georgetown University Law School professor has spent much of the last four decades working to make the nation focus on poverty and find solutions that would make a difference.

Now sixty-seven, Edelman has been at the forefront of concerted efforts to make the welfare system more responsible, productive, and accountable, attempting to do so without making it harsh or inhumane. He has worked to make the country aware of the link between race and poverty as social injustices. Edelman has pushed for greater access to civil legal representation for low-income people and remains a leading advocate for ensuring that young lawyers commit to significant pro bono work. He has been a strong voice for empowering communities and residents across the country to fight for better schools and for more say in the quality of education, but especially in the District of Columbia.

Says Edelman of the problems he sees today, “Overall, we don’t care enough as a country, not just about people who are technically poor but about people who have trouble paying their bills. . . . If you look at the median wage of workers, it is almost the same as it was thirty years ago, and the cost of living has been increasing faster than the rate of inflation.” He adds, “Now, so much of the problem at the bottom is lousy jobs. People work very hard and they do not get paid enough to support their families.”

Problems of poverty are exacerbated by racism, Edelman has argued in his many speeches and articles. “I believe that the extra high levels of poverty among people of color and the structural racism that is both cause and consequence of that pattern are the cutting-edge civil rights issues for the new century,” he said in a December 2002 speech later published in the Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. Despite the current climate in Washington, D.C., he strives to keep these issues at the top of the nation’s agenda.

To younger generations of antipoverty activists, Edelman may be best known for a moment of high drama. In September 1996, Edelman resigned his position as acting assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Despite having been a close friend of President Bill Clinton, Edelman left Clinton’s administration in visible protest because he felt strongly that the welfare legislation passed by Congress and signed by Clinton would undermine rather than strengthen the fight against poverty. “There was a great opportunity to make positive change,” Edelman recalled recently, “but they moved toward a more inhumane welfare system. . . . They destroyed the safety net.”

To judge Edelman solely by this act of principle and protest would be to ignore a career rich with commitment to fighting poverty and filled with opportunities to make a difference.

Edelman did not set out on the path of antipoverty crusader. Born in 1938, he grew up in a liberal family in Minnesota, the son of a lawyer who was a member of that state’s progressive Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Edelman left Minneapolis to attend Harvard University and Harvard Law School. He then was picked to clerk for Justice Felix Frankfurter on the U.S. Supreme Court. Fate intervened when Frankfurter retired in the summer of 1962 and Edelman was invited to work instead for Justice Arthur Goldberg, who had replaced Frankfurter on the Court. Had Edelman clerked for Frankfurter, the experience would have reaffirmed what he learned at Harvard Law School: law as a set of dispassionate neutral principles. But clerking for Goldberg “was an amazing awakening for me,” Edelman recalled. “He was someone who was really interested in doing justice. He was genuinely interested in the question of who is morally right in a case.”

Goldberg urged Edelman to work for the administration of President Kennedy “because there wouldn’t be many administrations like it in my lifetime,” Edelman said. He went to work in the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, beginning a five-year association that had a profound impact on his life.

When Robert Kennedy was elected as one of New York’s senators, Edelman became his legislative aide. Two experiences of that time remain seared in Edelman’s memory and gave him, as he puts it, “widespread exposure to problems I was literally unaware were there.” In 1965, Kennedy gave a speech in Los Angeles. Afterward, Kennedy and Edelman jumped in a taxi and were driven to Watts, only a few months after rioting had devastated the area. They walked around together and simply talked to residents, without any security or police escort to make the occasion more rigid and formal. Edelman also accompanied Kennedy to his first meeting in 1966 with farm workers’ leader Cesar Chavez, a session that Edelman recalls as “riveting.”

Another legislative trip with Kennedy remains vivid. In 1967, while in Mississippi to prepare for reauthorization of the centerpiece of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Edelman met a civil rights lawyer whom he later married. For more than thirty years, his wife, Marian Wright Edelman, has been director of the Children’s Defense Fund, which she founded in 1973. She has been a leading crusader for children’s rights to healthcare, education, and a life free of poverty ever since.

Had Kennedy been elected president in 1968, Edelman confidently asserts that his administration would have gone to work on meaningful welfare reform. What was needed, and what his shared vision with Kennedy included, were strategies to make both local communities and individuals have a stake in the individual’s well-being. Edelman noted, “Strategies have to include personal responsibility meeting community responsibility.” There had to be “community development, community empowerment, and through that, individual empowerment.” It was not about “just kicking people in the pants and telling them to go to work.”

Since 1982, with some time away for government service, Edelman has taught at Georgetown University Law School, where he says he is “devoting himself to trying to produce another generation of lawyers who will work on these issues.” But his work has not been only in the classroom. He helped found a District of Columbia organization in 1981, Parents United, to empower parents to advocate for educational quality in the district’s public schools. He currently serves as chair of the seventeen-member Access to Justice Commission for the District of Columbia, a panel studying ways to provide access to civil legal representation for those who cannot afford it. He is president of the board of the New Israel Fund, a group dedicated to pursuing economic justice and equality goals in Israel.

“I have tried to be involved in things that would make a difference, that would make things happen,” says Edelman. For that commitment, dedication, and devotion to finding solutions to the problems of economic injustice, Peter B. Edelman is a Human Rights Hero.

Stephen J. Wermiel

Stephen J. Wermiel is vice-chair of the Human Rights Editorial Board and is associate director of American University Law School’s Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, in which law students teach a year-long constitutional law course in Washington, D.C., public high schools.