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June 29, 2020

Longtime children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman to receive ABA Thurgood Marshall Award

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2020 — The American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice will honor children’s advocate and civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman with its 2020 Thurgood Marshall Award.

Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), was the first African American woman admitted to the State Bar of Mississippi. She courageously directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s office in Jackson, Mississippi, during the struggle for civil rights in the deep South in the 1960s. She later served as counsel to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign.

The award will be presented at a Thurgood Marshall Award Celebration virtual program on Friday, July 31, at 4:30-5:30 p.m. CT during the ABA Virtual Annual Meeting. The award honors U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who epitomized individual commitment, in word and action, to the cause of civil rights in this country. The award recognizes similar long-term contributions by other members of the legal profession to the advancement of civil rights, social justice, and human rights in the United States.

The program will include a presentation of the award, remarks by Edelman, and a conversation between Edelman and Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, about the past and future of civil rights and social justice in America.

An advocate for disadvantaged Americans her entire professional life, Edelman for 45 years led the CDF, which has been a decisive voice for children and families. The organization’s Leave No Child Behind mission works to ensure a healthy and fair start in life for every child and successful passage to adulthood.

“We are at a pivotal moment for civil rights and social justice in America. Marian Wright Edelman knows this,” said Wendy K. Mariner, chair of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. “She has lived moments like this in our history. She has walked the walk, and she knows what must be done now. We need to hear her powerful voice and heed her wise counsel.”

Edelman also founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm. Later she served for two years as the director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University, and in 1973 she founded the CDF.

Edelman is a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School. She was the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation, from 1971-1977. She chaired the Board of Trustees of Spelman College from 1976-1987.

The recipient of more than 100 honorary degrees and major awards — including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship — Edelman also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 2000.

She received the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings, which include “Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change,” “The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours,” “Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children,” “Stand for Children” and “Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors.”

Edelman is a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation and the Association to Benefit Children. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

The ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice provides leadership within the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties and social justice. Representing nearly 10,000 members with a wide range of professional interests and expertise, the section keeps its members abreast of complex civil rights and social justice issues and ensures that they remain a focus of law and policy.

There is no charge for media covering this event. To register, please contact Betsy Adeboyejo at 202-662-1039 or [email protected].

The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. View our privacy statement online. Follow the latest ABA news at and on Twitter @ABANews.