I know you don't like that "legend" business.
Why not, Marian? Because you are somewhat of a legend. You've been doing this for a long time, and you're still there as founder and president.
Well, because my daddy raised us and my mother raised us to serve, and we are servant-leaders. And it is not about external things or labels, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world having been born at the intersection of great needs and great injustices and great opportunities to change them. So I just feel very grateful that I could serve and make a difference.
What a beautiful way of saying it.
You grew up in the American South, and like all children, a lot of who you became was molded by your parents. Tell me: What did they teach you about movement-building?
I had extraordinary parents. I was so lucky. My mother was the best organizer I ever knew. And she always insisted, even back then, on having her own dime. She started her dairy so that she could have her penny, and that sense of independence has certainly been passed on to me. My daddy was a minister, and they were real partners. And my oldest sibling is a sister, I'm the youngest, and there are three boys in between. But I always knew I was as smart as my brothers. I always was a tomboy. I always had the same high aspirations that they had. But most importantly, we were terribly blessed, even though we were growing up in a very segregated small town in South Carolina—we knew it was wrong. I always knew, from the time I was four years old, that I wasn't going to accept being put into slots. But Daddy and Mama always had the sense that it was not us, it was the outside world, but you have the capacity to grow up to change it, and I began to do that very early on. But most importantly, they were the best role models, because they said: if you see a need, don't ask why somebody doesn't do it. See what you can do.
There was no home for the aged in our hometown. And Reverend Reddick, who had what we know now, 50 years later, as Alzheimer's, and he began to wander the streets. And so Daddy and Mama figured out he needed a place to go, so we started a home for the aged. Children had to cook and clean and serve. We didn't like it at the time, but that's how we learned that it was our obligation to take care of those who couldn't take care of themselves. I had 12 foster sisters and brothers. My mother took them in after we left home, and she took them in before we left home. And again, whenever you see a need, you try to fulfill it. God runs, Daddy used to say, a full employment economy.
And so if you just follow the need, you will never lack for something to do or a real purpose in life.
And every issue that the Children's Defense Fund works on today comes out of my childhood in a very personal way. Little Johnny Harrington, who lived three doors down from me, stepped on a nail; he lived with his grandmother, got tetanus, went to the hospital, no tetanus shots, he died. He was 11 years old. I remember that.
An accident in front of our highway, turns out to have been two white truck drivers and a migrant family that happened to be black. We all ran out to help. It was in the front of a church, and the ambulance came, saw that the white truck drivers were not injured, saw the black migrant workers were, turned around and left them. I never forgot that.
And immunizations was one of the first things I worked on at the Children's Defense Fund to make sure that every child gets immunized against preventable diseases. Unequal schools...
Separate and unequal, hand-me-downs from the white schools. But we always had books in our house. Daddy was a great reader. He used to make me read every night with him. I'd have to sit for 15 or 20 minutes. One day I put a "True Confessions" inside a "Life Magazine" and he asked me to read it out loud. I never read a "True Confessions" again.
But they were great readers. We always had books before we had a second pair of shoes, and that was very important. And although we had hand-me-down books for the black schools and hand-me-down everythings, it was a great need. He made it clear that reading was the window to the outside world, and so that was a great gift from them. But the reinforced lesson was that God runs a full employment economy, and that if you just follow the need, you will never lack for a purpose in life, and that has been so for me.
We had a very segregated small town. I was a rebel from the time I was four or five. I went out to a department store and there was "white" and "black" water signs, but I didn't know that and didn't pay much attention to that, and I was with one of my Sunday school teachers. I drank out of the wrong water fountain, and she jerked me away, and I didn't know what had happened, and then she explained to me about black and white water. I didn't know that, and after that, I went home, took my little wounded psyche to my parents, and told them what had happened, and said, "What's wrong with me?" And they said, "It wasn't much wrong with you. It's what's wrong with the system." And I used to go then secretly and switch water signs everywhere I went.
And it felt so good.
There is no question that this legend is a bit of a rebel, and has been for a long time. So you started your work as an attorney and with the Civil Rights Movement, and you worked with Dr. King on the original Poor People's Campaign. And then you made this decision, 45 years ago, to set up a national advocacy campaign for children. Why did you choose that particular service, to children?
Well, because so many of the things that I saw in Mississippi and across the South had to do with children. I saw children with bloated bellies in this country who were close to starvation, who were hungry, who were without clothes, and nobody wanted to believe that there were children who were starving, and that's a slow process. And nobody wanted to listen. Every congressman that would come to Mississippi, I'd say, "Go see," and most of them didn't want to do anything about it. But I saw grinding poverty. The state of Mississippi wanted, during voter registration efforts—and with outside white kids coming in to help black citizens register to vote—they wanted everybody to leave the state, so they were trying to starve them out. And they switched from free food commodities to food stamps that cost two dollars. People had no income, and nobody in America wanted to believe that there was anybody in America without any income. Well, I knew hundreds of them, thousands of them. And malnutrition was becoming a big problem.
And so one of these days came Dr. King down on a number of things we were fighting to get the Head Start program—which the state of Mississippi turned down—refinanced. And he went into a center that the poor community was running without any help, and he saw a teacher carve up an apple for eight or 10 children, and he had to run out, because he was in tears. He couldn't believe it. But only when Robert Kennedy decided he would come—I had gone to testify about the Head Start program, because they were attacking. And I asked, please, come and see yourself, and when you come and see, see hungry people and see starving children. And they came, and he brought the press, and that began to get the movement going. But they wanted to push all the poor people to go north and to get away from being voters. And I'm proud of Mike Espy. Even though he lost last night, he'll win one of these days.
But you wouldn't have seen such grinding poverty, and the outside white kids who'd come in to help register voters in the 1964 Summer Project where we lost those three young men. But once they left, the press left, and there was just massive need, and people were trying to push the poor out. And so, you know, Head Start came, and we applied for it, because the state turned it down. And that's true of a lot of states that don't take Medicaid these days. And we ran the largest Head Start program in the nation, and it changed their lives. They had books that had children who looked like them in it, and we were attacked all over the place.
But the bottom line was that Mississippi gave birth to the Children's Defense Fund in many ways, and it also occurred to me that children and preventive investment, and avoiding costly care and failure and neglect, was a more strategic way to proceed. And so the Children's Defense Fund was born out of the Poor People's Campaign. But it was pretty clear that whatever you called black independent or brown independent was going to have a shrinking constituency. And who can be mad at a two-month-old baby or at a two-year-old toddler? A lot of people can be. They don't want to feed them, neither, from what we've seen.
But it was the right judgment to make. And so out of the privilege of serving as the Poor People's Campaign coordinator for policy for two years, and there were two of them, and it was not a failure, because the seeds of change get planted and have to have people who are scut workers and follow up. And I'm a good scut worker and a persistent person. And you know, as a result, I would say that all those people on food stamps today ought to thank those poor people in the mud in Resurrection City. But it takes a lot of follow-up, detailed work—and never going away.
And you've been doing it for 45 years, and you've seen some amazing outcomes. What are you proudest of out of the Children's Defense Fund?
Well, I think the children now have sort of become a mainstream issue. We have got lots of new laws. Millions of children are getting food. Millions of children are getting a head start. Millions of children are getting Head Start and have gotten a head start, and the Child Health Insurance Program, CHIP, Medicaid expansions for children. We've been trying to reform the child welfare system for decades. We finally got a big breakthrough this year, and it says, be ready with the proposals when somebody's ready to move, and sometimes it takes five years, 10 years, 20 years, but you're there. I've been trying to keep children out of foster care and out of institutions and with their families, with preventive services. That got passed.
But there are millions of children who have hope, who have access to early childhood. Now, we are not finished, and we are not going to ever feel finished until we end child poverty in the richest nation on earth. It's just ridiculous that we have to be demanding that.
And there are so many of the problems in spite of the successes, and thank you for going through some of them, Marian—the Freedom Schools, the generations of children now who have gone through Children's Defense Fund programs. But when you look around the world, in this country, the United States, and in other countries, there are still so many problems. What worries you the most?
What worries me is how irresponsible we adults in power have been in passing on a healthier earth. And it worries me when I read the "Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" and see now that we are two minutes from midnight, and that's gotten closer. We have put our future and our children's future and safety at risk in a world that is still too much governed by violence. We must end that. We must stop investing in war and start investing in the young and in peace, and we are really so far away from doing that.
And I don't want my grandchildren to have to fight these battles all over again, and so I get more radical. The older I get, the more radical I get, because there are just some things that we as adults have to do for the next generations. And I looked at the sacrifices of Mrs. Hamer and all those people in Mississippi who risked their lives to give us a better life. But the United States has got to come to grips with its failure to invest in its children, and it's the Achilles' heel of this nation. How can you be one of the biggest economies in the world and you let 13.2 million children go live in poverty, and you let children go homeless when you've got the means to do it?
We've got to rethink who we are as a people, be an example for the world. There should be no poverty. In fact, we want to say we're going to end poverty in the world. Just start at home. And we've made real progress, but it's such hard work, and it's going to be our Achilles' heel. We should stop giving more tax cuts, sorry folks, to billionaires rather than to babies and their health care. We should get our priorities straight.
That's not right, and it's not cost-effective. And the key to this country is going to be an educated child population, and yet we've got so many children who cannot read or write at the most basic levels. We're investing in the wrong things, and I wouldn't be upset about anybody having one billion, 10 billion, if there were no hungry children, if there were no homeless children, if there were no uneducated children. And so it's really about what does it mean to live and lead this life. Why were we put on this earth? We were put on this earth to make things better for the next generations. And here we're worrying about climate change and global warming. And we're looking at, again, I constantly cite—I look at that "Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" every year. And it says now: "Two minutes to midnight." Are we out of our minds, adults, about passing on a better a world to our children? That's what our purpose is, to leave a better world for everybody, and the concept of enough for everybody. There should be no hungry children in this world with the rich wealth that we have. And so I can't think of a bigger cause, and I think that I'm driven by my faith. And it's been a privilege to serve, but I always had the best role models in the world. Daddy always said God runs a full employment economy, and that if you just follow the need, you'll never lack for a purpose in life. And I watched the partnership—because my mother was a true partner. I always knew I was as smart as my brothers, at least. And we always knew that we were not just to be about ourselves, but that we were here to serve.
Well, Marian, I want to say, on behalf of all the world's children, thank you for your passion, your purpose and your advocacy.