Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a very special event: the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.'s celebration of the 20th anniversary of its National Equal Justice Award Dinner.
The fund is "America's legal counsel on issues of race," and uses the court system — along with advocacy, educational outreach and policy research — to address key needs in education, voter protection and economic and criminal justice.
The legal fund was founded in 1940 under the leadership of legendary civil rights attorney and first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. During the civil rights movement, the fund provided counsel for Dr. King and many other demonstrators. It originally was founded to provide legal assistance to poor Black Americans, but the cases the NAACP has fought have helped ensure more justice for all Americans. Before and after its landmark victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the fund won victory after victory in its efforts to open up opportunity for all Americans, ensure voters' rights, challenge housing discrimination, ensure equal employment practices and more.
This year's National Equal Justice Awards Dinner honored Time Warner, Inc. Chairman and CEO Richard Parsons and PepsiCo. Inc. Chairman Steven Reinemund for their commitment to equal opportunity and diversity and serving as role models for other corporate leaders.
In his remarks, Parsons told a moving story about his grandfather, who had been a deeply respected groundskeeper on the Rockefeller family estate at Pocantico Hills. Parsons went to law school and became counsel to Nelson Rockefeller and lived on that same estate in a different role. He reminded the audience that he hadn't become a CEO because he had more intelligence and ability than his grandfather, but, thanks to the legal education fund, he had access to different opportunities.
Many of us know we've also come as far as we have because of the opportunities we've been blessed to be able to seize along the road. In so many different ways the fund's work helped clear our paths and laid the groundwork for ending legal apartheid in America.
The Legal Defense Fund gave me my first job after law school. I had no idea how I was going to earn enough to live in Mississippi, where I wanted to practice after graduating from law school in 1963. Julius Chambers and I received an incredible year of training and then three years of support through the Earl Warren Fellowships.
Mississippi in the civil rights movement years was the best place any young lawyer could work. It was clear to me in Mississippi in 1965 that winning the important cases to desegregate schools and public facilities did not end our job as lawyers if our plaintiffs were thrown out of their houses and jobs, violently attacked and could not get food and health care for their children. The need to break the cycle of poverty through children became the next frontier — and so a few years after leaving Mississippi to help prepare for the Poor People's Campaign, I founded the Children's Defense Fund.
Today, the legal education fund is still providing scholarships and training programs for talented college and law school students who are ready and eager to make a difference. We have come a long way and as we look around we know we still have a long ways left to go, too. We'll get there!
As we approach the 40th year of Dr. King's and Robert F. Kennedy's deaths in 2008, people who will not take "no" for an answer when justice and the lives of children are at stake will make all the difference in the world. The NAACP's example shows us what passion, perseverance and excellence can accomplish. I'm so grateful for all it does and for the fine leadership of Ted Shaw and his team of great lawyers.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council.