"If I could sit down for justice, you can stand up for children." These words of support, sent by Rosa Parks, thrilled and inspired the more than 250,000 people who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 1996, for the first Stand for Children Day.
The crowd included adults and children from across the country and all walks of life, but we all shared one thing in common: a vision of a nation that puts children's needs first.
We came to the nation's capital and gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, to tell our nation's leaders it was time for them to share and act on our vision of truly leaving no child behind.
The sight of 10,000 children marching together across the bridge to join the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial reinforced the day's main message: At a time when lawmakers were debating a "Contract With America" that promised deep cuts in investments in and services for children and families, children and the adults who cared for them were not willing to sit down and keep quiet.
This June 1 marked the 10th anniversary of that historic convening. Stand for Children Day was the largest rally for children in American history, and it started a new phase of building a children's movement in our nation. The tens of thousands of people who gathered together that day proved to our politicians that although children can't vote, they did have a tremendous constituency of voters who placed a priority on their needs.
Child advocates saw the power we had when we all worked together, and Stand for Children chapters formed across the nation to work in their communities and states every day on the local issues affecting children. In 1997, on the rally's first anniversary, Parks and comedian Rosie O'Donnell were the honorary co-chairs of Stand for Healthy Children Day, which included 700 local Stand for Healthy Children events around the country in support of legislation to provide children health insurance.
Naysayers said finding the political will to do that would be impossible, but we drafted and pushed for a bill that four and a half months later resulted in the passage of the Child Health Insurance Program, a $48 billion investment that covered 5 million children.
Nearly 10 years after that victory, children's health coverage is eroding while the needs are increasing. That means the time has come to bring children's health back to the forefront and push again for a new national child health coverage policy. Fortunately, we've learned even more about how we can work together to make change happen for children.
After the first two Stand for Children Days, Stand for Children went on to become its own national organization that helped coordinate the local chapters' activities and began organizing citizens to shine a spotlight on children's needs.
Since 1999, Stand for Children members have won more than 60 victories at the state and local levels that have helped over 1.3 million children by securing more than $500 million in funding for improved education and health care. Today, Stand for Children is focusing its organizing activities on three states where it is making a major difference: Oregon, Tennessee and Massachusetts.
Last year the chapters in these states celebrated two crucial statewide victories, helping to secure over $100 million for Oregon's K-12 classrooms and making pre-kindergarten available to 6,000 more 4-year-olds across Tennessee. These chapters are serving as a model for how change can continue to spread all across the country.
Our children are once again facing huge threats as our national political leaders recklessly rob our national coffers of hundreds of billions of dollars to lavish more tax cuts on millionaires. At the same time, they are cutting tens of billions of dollars from safety net supports our nation's children desperately need.
What kind of leaders ask poor children to sacrifice already inadequate child health and mental health care, education, child care, Head Start and after-school programs to subsidize $1.9 trillion in tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthiest and most powerful people?
Children once again need a massive voice of strong supporters standing up for their needs nationally, locally and in every state in the voting booths and on the city and county councils. Those of us who are in it for the long haul aren't about to sit down now. We are going to stand up taller and together until our leaders act.
To learn how you can stand for children, visit www.stand.org.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.