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Civil rights and social equality advocate Marian Wright Edelman urged UT graduates to do their part to make America “more just, more hopeful, more peaceful, more productive, inclusive, and unified.”

Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek awarded Edelman an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters —the ninth honorary degree given by UT—at the College of Communication and Information commencement ceremony on Friday. Edelman then addressed graduates.

Edelman degree
From left: Mike Wirth, dean of the College of Communication and Information; honorary degree recipient Marian Wright Edelman; and Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek.

“This may be the first time in our history when our children and grandchildren will be worse off than their parents and grandparents unless we correct course and do whatever is necessary to get them to safe harbor,” Edelman said. “God did not make two classes of children, and we continue to do so at our soul and nation’s peril.”

Edelman has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans throughout her career. She is the founder and president of Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization whose purpose is to ensure a level playing field for all children.

A graduate of Spelman College with a law degree from Yale University, Edelman began her career in the 1960s as director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in Jackson, Mississippi. She was the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. In 1968, she moved to Washington, DC to become counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign, an initiative started by Martin Luther King Jr. She then served as director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University.

She founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. The organization has been headquartered on the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for more than twenty years.

Edelman has received more than 100 honorary degrees. She has received the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Edelman speech
Marian Wright Edelman, social advocate and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, addresses graduates after receiving an honorary degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Edelman encouraged the graduates to use their particular skills—journalism, public relations and advertising, communication studies, and information sciences—for the greater good.

“As information purveyors and opinion shapers, I hope you will use the power of words and images to make a positive and thoughtful difference in our nation,” she said.

She talked specifically about the immense problem of poverty, specifically child poverty.

Despite having the world’s largest economy, America has 14.7 million poor children—a number, she said, that exceeds the population of Finland or twelve US states combined, and is about twice Tennessee’s population.

“Every year that we keep 14.7 million children in poverty, it costs our nation $500 billion in school dropouts, lost productivity, dependency, and incarceration costs,” she said.

“We hear a lot about grave national security threats from external enemies, but we hear far too little about the greatest national security threats that come from no external enemy but from our failure as a nation to invest in healthy, educated children and provide them safe and hopeful passage to successful adulthood.”

Edelman said a new Children’s Defense Fund report indicates the solutions for ending child poverty already exist.

“We asked the nonpartisan Urban Institute to calculate how much child poverty could be reduced by expanding investments in nine existing policies and programs that work,” she said. “They answered we could shrink overall child poverty 60 percent, black child poverty 72 percent, and improve economic circumstances for 97 percent of poor children at a cost of $77.2 billion a year.”

Edelman suggested that national priorities might be off-kilter.

“Food, shelter, quality early childhood investments to get every child ready for school and an equitable education with high expectations for all children should take precedence over massive welfare for the rich and blatantly excessive spending for military weapons that often do not work,” she said.

She closed with another challenge for the graduates: “As you leave this great university, offer your hand to children who need you and your voice.”


Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,