tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS August 6, 2016 4:00pm-4:31pm PDT
>> hinojosa: she worked alongside martin luther king jr. for civil rights, and for the last four decades, she's been a central figure in the struggle for children's rights. best-selling author and founder of the children's defense fund, marian wright edelman. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. marian wright edelman, you're an american hero. it's such an honor to have you here. >> it's wonderful to be here with you. >> hinojosa: so we know that you are an expert on policy around children. i've known that for years. you've been doing this for four decades. >> forever. >> hinojosa: forever! but what i really want to start us out talking about is your life, because you have an
extraordinary life. it's as if marian wright edelman has this forrest gump life. she was in these places, in extraordinary places, and every page you turn of your life story is like, "she was there, too?" i guess i'm not even sure where to start. south carolina, your parents are very hard-working, your mom is an organizer, but even when you were a kid in school in south carolina, you end up crossing paths with langston hughes. >> well, i've always felt so lucky to have been born who i was, where i was, with the parents i had. and at the time, i was born in the convergence of great people and great historical events. and so i wouldn't have been anybody else, even though it has not always been an easy life. and in south carolina, in my little, rural, segregated town, the outside world was not very friendly and not very supportive of black children. they told me basically in a segregated small town in the '40s and the '50s that, as a
black girl, i wasn't worth very much. >> hinojosa: and you would hear that? >> oh, but that was... everything was segregated. there were places... and i can't bear to see children excluded from any place. and there were all these places i couldn't go, but even from the time i was able to kind of walk, i couldn't stand being excluded from a water fountain or from a public library or from anything, i just... >> hinojosa: so you knew kind of viscerally. you were like, "wait a second, i'm thirsty, i want to go drink," and you knew that you couldn't go drink from that fountain. >> well, i actually went in the local belk's department store when i was a little girl with one of my public school teachers, and i went... i was thirsty, i went to drink in the white water fountain-- i didn't know what a white water fountain was-- and she was terribly afraid and upset and pulled me away. and i remember going home with my little wounded psyche, but getting reinforced by my parents. but, you know, this woman died when she was about 90, not too long ago, and the thing that i remember most about her is that she somehow was so afraid to protect me as a child. it's amazing... but segregation
and apartheid seeps in to every bit of your being, because you know that there are places you're not supposed to be, and they're... you know, you've got hand-me-down books in schools, and the white kids are going this way and the black kids are going this way to school, and we always had a place... i've just come from home this past... you know, recently, and i started pointing out, "here's where we always had our fights every day. 'who's going to get the sidewalk?'" but these things are... >> hinojosa: who's going to get the sidewalk? >> who's going to get the sidewalk. if you're coming from the white segregated school and i'm coming from the black segregated school and we meet in between, then the issue was who's going to get to walk on the sidewalk and who's going to get... you know. it seeps into everything in your life, and so children, from the beginning, are sort of sorted and excluded. you don't forget that. so there was never a time when i didn't know i was going to change it, too. i hated it. >> hinojosa: well, that's the interesting thing. this notion that... you know, you talk about being really appreciative of being born in that moment in history, which is very different than this moment in history, because back then it was like the challenges were so intense, so frontal, and yet
there you were, meeting and, in fact, i would say inspiring dr. martin luther king. oh, for a minute, please. right? i mean, you were an inspiration to him, weren't you? >> well, i was a messenger. let's just put it that way. i mean, he thought i was an angel that had come to transmit a message from robert kennedy to him on my way back to mississippi about the need to bring the poor to washington, because he was... >> hinojosa: did he actually... he actually believed that you were something of an angel? >> well, he was... well, in the last eight years of his life, which is when i knew him-- i met him when i was a senior at spelman college-- and he was very inspiring in chapel, and i remember it as if it were yesterday when he told us to keep moving and that's something i've internalized. there were two messages: if you can't fly, you drive, if you can't drive, you run, if you can't run, you walk, if you can't walk, you crawl, but you keep moving. and the second message, which i had written in my diary after hearing him, was that you don't have to see the whole stairway.
take the first step in faith and let god take you to the rest. and he was the first adult, famous adult, that i got to know who wasn't afraid to say he didn't know what his next step was going to be. he was often very depressed at the end, life got very complicated. and so when i came through, he was very concerned about the vietnam war detracting attention from poor people, and everybody in the civil rights movement moved north, and violence had begun to challenge nonviolence and black power had begun to overshadow the message of the beloved community. he was really quite down, and he had great schisms in his own staff about whether the southern christian leadership conference at that time should be focused more on ending war or on ending poverty, and he chose the poor people's campaign. >> hinojosa: the challenges were so much for him, and to have seen him at that moment... and yet, he was the one who said, "don't ever give up." >> "don't ever give up, just keep moving," and he was clear that courage is not about not being afraid, it is about not
being paralyzed into inaction, and that's... again, one of the gifts i think i've had in my life is i always grew up with people of deep faith, who didn't say you had to win, but that you had to get up every morning and try to live your faith, and i saw that in my house, with my mother and father. whenever they saw a need, they tried to respond. there were no black homes for the aged, so they started one across the street from our church and our parsonage. and all the kids had to go over. we had to cook and clean and we sure didn't like it, but that's how we knew that everybody was our neighbor. and when we could not go and sit down on drugstore lunch counters and have a coca-cola and couldn't swim in the white public swimming pool and could not sort of have recreation in the white parks, daddy and mama built one behind the church. and we... whenever they saw a need, they tried to respond. and that was... and he had a message to us because every day he'd ask us when we came home from school, "did the teacher assign you any homework?" and if we said, "no," he said, "well, assign yourself some." >> hinojosa: i love that. i'm giving that one to my
children. "do you not have any homework tonight? assign yourself some." >> and so all these people who are not, you know, happy with the way things are going in our society, i keep saying, "assign yourself. dr. king's not coming back; each of us has to kind of get there and do this work ourselves." >> hinojosa: i love this notion, though, of you being a strong black woman in a segregated america, and your sense of fearlessness. and i'm just like, where... because if you went out of the bounds there, clearly there were real repercussions. there was violence, there were dogs, there was jail. where did you get that fearlessness, though? >> i can't stand injustice. i can't stand seeing any child being excluded from anything. and i guess i saw outrages from the very beginning. when i was a little girl, there was an accident in front of our church out on the highway, and we ran out to see what had happened, and there was a truck driver, big truck, white driver,
and a car of migrant workers. and the ambulance came and found that the white truck driver was not injured and the black migrant workers were out on the highway, were injured, but they drove away. i have never forgotten that. i don't know if i was six or seven years old, in the middle of the night. you know, i've seen... i saw children, my little classmates die because they were... henry munlun, i was walking by his house not too long ago. you know, he went to swim in the local creek because we couldn't swim in the swimming pools, and he jumped off the bridge and broke his neck. >> hinojosa: oh, my goodness. >> little johnny harrington, who lived two houses away from my church, lived with his grandmother, stepped on a nail and got tetanus. she didn't know anything about tetanus shots, but he died. and these things etch themselves into one's childhood memory, and there was never a time when i didn't know that i would fight segregation. and it didn't occur to me to
be... you know, if you were thirsty, you drank. i went to the public library, and that's a good story. when i was a child, and they didn't let me in, well, last year they dedicated the new public library to me, and across the top is, "everyone is welcome." so change is possible. >> hinojosa: i want to give you a high five on that one. >> ah, how about that? it's wonderful. and it's the new center of the community where kids go and everybody's going and it's wonderful. >> hinojosa: but take me back to one other person who was an extraordinary part of your life, and again, the fact that you sat down and had conversations, coffee, with malcolm x. those conversations. >> i've had a serendipitous life. i was at yale law school, and malcolm, even though i was a king follower... but he was so feisty and so outrageously funny that he reflected all the bitterness that we all had, but he made us laugh it all out. >> hinojosa: are you saying that malcolm x was bitterly funny? >> oh, he was bitterly funny, but he would say outrageous things about white people that
satisfied a part of all of us, because there's nobody that didn't have great outrage or rage within. and when he came to speak at yale law school, and i was sitting in the law school auditorium, reading my little book, waiting for him to come in, had never seen him before, and all of a sudden i looked up and somebody was saying, "miss wright," and he was introducing himself, and i could not believe it. and he said, "i'm malcolm x." and he knew everything about my life. i couldn't believe it. and i then found out someone from my hometown was one of his followers who had... from the bridgeport, connecticut, mosque. but anyway, we became friends. and i went down to have lunch with him a number of times in his restaurant, and he would be very funny. whenever i ordered white bread, he'd say, "don't eat that. that's got no nutrition in that." >> hinojosa: (laughs) but the fact is that even though you were a follower of martin luther king, you were... and malcolm x was clearly wanting to engage with you and you were clearly open to having broad conversations. >> of course, i mean, there's no one way to anything.
in fact, malcolm x's brother, who was the social services commissioner in michigan, became a lifelong friend. but you know, he reflected a great part of the longings of our community and was able to get out a lot of the bitterness and allow us to sort of function in constructive ways. and so i think that this one leader mode... now i knew, just because as a woman, that i would never be able to have a subservient relationship, but i was very lucky to have, again, parents who were partners, and they did not raise their girls to be any different in terms of aspirations than their boys. i always knew i was as smart as my brothers, and i now know how unusual that was. but my parents were real partners, and my dad called my mom "pal," and she was the organizer, but he couldn't have made it without her, so it was a great partnership. but i knew that oftentimes... i was in the muslim community and i had one boyfriend for a very short time from jamaica who... first time i got taken there, the women went in one room and the men went in another
and i said, "oh, this is not for me." >> hinojosa: (laughs) not going to work. >> not going to work. >> hinojosa: now, you actually also had another extraordinary experience because you met your future husband through somebody who everybody knows: robert f. kennedy. and at that point, you decided that you really liked this man who was a white jewish man. >> well, i just liked this man. you know, people don't marry colors or religions, they marry individuals. i had an image. this came up during the 1967 period when the head start program and the poverty program was under attack in mississippi, the state had turned it down, and i had been summoned to testify in washington. but then i told them to come down and see for themselves, because it's one thing to have somebody like me coming up to talk about the poor. it's another thing to go down and to actually see the poor. and i was supposed to testify on head start because senators stennis and eastland, very powerful senators, had threatened to hold up the entire poverty program's appropriations
if they didn't defund this community race program where parents and children were having the time of their lives. but then, for whatever reason, peter came down to... my husband now, came down to advance this hearing. but i had an image. i was very busy, i had a brief to write. and he called up to see if he could see me, and i said, "no, i'm too busy." and i had this image of peter being like pierre salinger. i had not been a great bobby kennedy fan in the early days because when the president... his brother was president, they had appointed a lot of segregationist jobs, judges, in the south, and secondly, they had wiretapped dr. king. and i had remembered him as well from the mccarthy hearings. >> hinojosa: you were kind of angry. >> i was kind of angry, and i thought this was a nice, arrogant, cigar-chomping man who was coming down, so i didn't have time for him, and he turned out to be this really nice man, just as robert kennedy turned out to be this very nice, open, funny, caring man who was transformed by his brother's death. and the thing that i remember most about robert kennedy is he could transmit so much just through a touch. i would watch him just touch the
cheeks of children or to, you know, try to get feelings out of them or when he liked something, he would just give you a pat. but at any rate, he came, and i don't know where it came from that i would not talk about head start. i would talk about hunger because people were starving in mississippi and malnourished, and there were babies with bloated bodies, and for whatever reason i started talking about the problems that were going on in the delta. the mississippi officials were changing over from free food commodities to food stamps and charging two dollars per person and people had no income and they were being pushed off the plantation. >> hinojosa: right. but i'm still stuck on the fact that you, as a young black woman, just were saying, "i'm going to... i like this man, and i think i might even marry this man," which you ended up doing. and then you ended up giving birth to three boys. >> three wonderful boys. >> hinojosa: who are jewish african-american from the south. >> that's right. >> hinojosa: and for you, this relationship as a mother to impart to them that you are products of a jewish background and of an african-american
background, and you've written about this, the fact that these are oppressed people. talk a little bit about how you manage that, you know, being in the center of the public eye and, at the same time, being a mom who's trying manage... i mean, just before we came in, you said, "oh, i'm always known as my kids' mom," and i'm like, "no, no, no, you're marian wright edelman." and you're like, "no." you're known as ezra's mom... >> joshua's mom and jonah's mom, and that's really fantastic. and now i have four grandchildren and i just recently, in fact yesterday, celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary. >> hinojosa: congratulations. >> thank you very much. but you know, it's... you marry people, you don't marry races, and again, it never occurred to me not to. he's a nice man and i don't know anybody who could put up with me for 43 years. and we often laughed that we got together over hungry children, but we shared a very deep bond for justice, we tried to raise the children in both traditions, though i am far more religious
than my husband is. but we wanted them to know through what i would call... he doesn't like when i call it "baptist bar mitzvahs" in the backyard. >> hinojosa: (laughs) baptist bar mitzvahs. that's so american. >> that's so american, but we... i went to church every sunday and the kids had to go to church with me every sunday until they were in their senior year in high school, but we all went through this ritual of them getting their bar mitzvahs. but the 139th psalm was the last sermon that my father preached when i knew he was telling us he was going to go away, but that there was nowhere he could go that god was not. and we always opened all three ceremonies with lots of friends together on all sides of the aisle anall racewith tha psalm. and so his family wahappy, my family was happy, and the kids know both aditions ahey're all good human beings and i don't care whether they're jewish or christian as long as they care about other people, and they do. >> hinojosa: so you were the one who brought up the issue of hunger, and getting together with your husband over hunger. and i have a couple of statistics to talk to you about
because honestly, when you think about where we are right now, you've actually said this more than once. you're concerned that the chle wceow could be, in fact, worse than what we faced at the time of segregation in our country. so a statistic, you know these. every 32 seconds in our country, a baby is born into poverty. i mean, there are extraordinary ones, but that every 18 minutes in our country, a baby dies before his or her first birthday? >> we have an infant mortality rate and a low birth weight rate in the richest nation on earth that spends more money on health expenditures than anybody else's. that of a third-world country that is an underdeveloped nation. it is outrageous. >> hinojosa: how can it be so... if children's defense fund has been doing this for 40 years and pointing to problems, where is the lapse? >> we've made a lot of progress since we started and we've, you know, we wiped out hunger for a period after robert kennedy and dr. king and we
spent a lot of time and other people joined in. and then with the expansion of the food programs and things that became wic, and that's the real safety net program today, the reagan administration came in, massive budget cuts, and we began to go backwards. we knew how to solve hunger. and here we are in 2011 and hunger has resurged, homelessness is everywhere, poverty has grown. when dr. king was dying, calling for a poor people's campaign, we had 11 million poor children. today, we have 15 1/2 million poor children. a majority live in working families struggling to make ends meet. and the gap between the rich and poor is higher than it's ever been. the country, despite the progress in many ways, despite a black president in the white house, which is a miracle, despite the body of laws that we have been instrumental in working with others and helping achieve, things are going backwards. our generation of children and grandchildren may not do as well as we did. and the whole premise of the american dream and of the civil
rights movement: we wanted our children to have a better life. and here we are, eating the seed corn of the future and children poorer than they've ever been. you know, half of these children are living in extreme poverty. the health care of children, while we've made progress and the new health reform act will cover, or at least give access to, 95% of all children without the kind of reforms we need, you've got eight million uninsured children. they're eligible, but uninsured children. things are getting worse. >> hinojosa: you actually have pointed a lot to what happened in new orleans after katrina as a real wake-up call to our country. that if that level of lack of attention could exist in a modern day america... so, in fact, is that the image that we must carry with us? >> it's still an essential truth for millions of people. it... katrina just ripped the
veil of hypocrisy and let us see the poverty behind it in the way in which dr. king and robert kennedy were able to do on hunger in an earlier era. and when you look at the pervasiveness of poverty today, you know, there was a front page story in the new york times because we had such a hard time proving that there were people who had no income in mississippi in 1967. nobody wanted to believe it, and orville freeman, and even with robert kennedy coming, they were saying, "there are no people in america who can't afford two dollars for food stamps." well it took, you know, a huge amount of hearings. but jason deparle did a front-page story in the new york times within the last year saying that there were six million americans, one in 50, who had no cash income and were dependent on food stamps. and those people all ought to thank those poor people who made hunger a national issue a long time ago and made those small programs become massive national programs. nobody responded. the absence of voice, the separation of people, one from the other, this growing gap in no voice, which i call the growing corporatization of
america. we've got to find a way to make ourselves heard again and we've got to rediscover the things that bring us all together. >> hinojosa: as we think about what's happening with the latino demographic and the fact that, you know, the fastest number of children born in this country are actually latino. so what has the children's defense fund done to kind of look at the numbers and say, "wow, we may have been looking at it through black and white, but we really need to... there's this problem, this issue of latino children that needs to be uncovered." >> well, a child is a child is a child, and one of the big messages today-- and the children's defense fund has always tried to talk about all children, but we pay particular attention to children of color and who are poor or disabled and who have less of a voice-- but one of the central messages today is, if you don't want to invest in these other people's children-- black children, latino children, native american children, or indian-american children-- you better do it out of self-interest, because this is the fastest-growing demographic.
by 2019, which is only eight years from now, the majority of the child population is going to be black or latino or native american, children of color, mirroring a world that is two-thirds non-white. and so we're becoming more like the whole universe and we need to be relevant. >> hinojosa: you were very much a supporter of president barack obama, and i'm wondering now, again, as a powerful african-american woman, a powerful american, what is the message from someone like you in your position to the president and to the rest of us in terms of our relationship to democracy? >> well, we're proud of him but, you know, he's not a savior. we've got to build a movement and push him and enable him to do a lot of the things that he needs to do. you know, he's made a lot of accomplishments. i'm very proud of health reform, i'm very proud of the level of investment in trying to get refundable tax credits for all americans, i'm very pleased about the investment in education and the focus on education. there's a new big thing to
invest in early education. and so he has reflected many of the values, and i think he's been the best president in many ways in terms of investment for children in this era. now, we've got to stand up though and say, "oh, but you cannot be cutting any budgets for babies because talk about fair sacrifice." babies and billionaires are not equal. we've really got to move this in a different direction. but the pressure on him... he is the president of all the people. he's not just the president of black people, he's not just the president of latino or people of color. he's got to be the president of everybody. and politicians... there are no friends in politics. you have to make your voices heard. and even when the instincts are good and moving in the right direction, and i think this administration really has done a lot to try to bring us together, it's up to us. people keep wanting a savior, or president, to sort of solve their problems, or dr. king to come back and to get us on the right path. well, democracy's not a spectator sport. it's not about prophets and people coming back. dr. king was made by people. he was a reluctant prophet, and he always knew that the movement made him and he didn't make the
movement. and so each of us has got to assign ourselves to standing up for children, standing up for the poor, fighting budget cuts, making, you know, those who are wealthy and have undue subsidies and tax breaks from our public largesse pay their fair share. but we've got to find our voice and we've got to raise a ruckus. the president can't do it without us. >> hinojosa: and what i find fascinating, marian, is that the reality is you're still struggling at children's defense fund. >> of course. >> hinojosa: in other words, there isn't, you know, you kind of make it and it's there. and you still confront battles every day. so leave us with that message of the rest of us who are just like, "oh my gosh, hard day today. who knows what's going to happen on..." you know, "how am i going to make ends meet?" give us that message, marian. >> well, for those of us who are people of faith and who went through the civil rights movement, which was a miracle-- who would have thought, in a 30-, 40- or 50-year period, that legal apartheid could fall, and it came because of the sacrifice and the vision and the
courage of poor people and a small group of lawyers and young people, and i was so glad to be a young person able to go and sit in atlanta and then watch and go back to city hall in atlanta and see andy young as mayor-- unbelievable, but i saw what changes had occurred when people speak up. and howard zinn, who was one of my mentors at spelman, always talked about each individual making a difference. so i lived through a period when people, ordinary people, poor people, made a difference, and we have got to get a new infusion of that kind of courage and sense today... and reclaim our country, reset our moral compass, build a future that's going to be better. i am not going to leave this world like this for my grandchildren and my children, and i know that women and people of color who have been in the margins can stand up and form coalitions and say that children have to come first. the soul of our nation depends on it. the future of this nation depends on it. and our children depend on us. and so what's not to keep fighting about? >> hinojosa: well, for those words... how can i say no, how can anyone say no to marian wright edelman?
- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation, - i'm evan smith, her 2013 filibuster of an abortion bill in texas made her an international celebrity, and propelled her to run for governor of her home state. today's she's travelling the country as an advocate for gender equality, and she's encouraging young women everywhere to follow in her footsteps. she's wendy davis. this is overheard. let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn, or is this about the experience of not having of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen on other nations in africa. - i'd have to say he made his own bed. - [evan] but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem, and over time took it on-- let's start with the sizzle before we get to the stake.