Save the Children

updated 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN first heard about the rioting in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in April, her impulse was to contact her sons. Joshua, 22, a teacher in Massachusetts, Jonah, 21, a recent Yale grad, and Ezra, 17, who will attend Yale next fall, all live a country's width from the rage in South Central, but still Edelman, who lives in Washington, D.C., worried. "I felt the need to tell them to be careful," she says. "When you're a black mother, there is always a fear that your child is vulnerable."

Assessing a situation in terms of its effects on the young has long been Edelman's specialty—and she doesn't limit that concern to her own family. As founder and head of the Children's Defense Fund, Washington's most influential research-and-lobbying organization for children's rights, she has spent nearly 20 years fighting for better education, nutrition, health and day care. During the current administration alone, her well informed, vociferous advocacy has contributed to the passage of a major child-care bill. "I think saving our own children," she says, "calls for saving other people's children."

Now, Edelman, 53, has published a book she hopes will do a bit of both. The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours began as a missive to her eldest son on his 21st birthday. "I wanted to be clear about what was really important in life," Edelman says. She expanded those thoughts—on her own childhood, on the importance of family and above all on the necessity for public service—into a slim volume that is part memoir, part homegrown advice. Widely praised since its May publication, the book is selling well and recently brought Beacon Press a record-high $425,000 paperback sale.

The youngest of five children born to Arthur Wright, a Baptist preacher, and his wife, Maggie, a community activist, Edelman grew up in segregated Bennettsville, S.C., but learned early that intolerance could be over-come. Since blacks were not allowed at local soda fountains, Reverend Wright opened a canteen. "I had adults around who thought building a decent life was everyone's responsibility," says Edelman.

Her parents also stressed higher education. At Atlanta's Spelman College, Edelman planned a foreign service career—until the civil rights movement caught fire. Alter being arrested at a sit-in, she decided to help the cause by getting a law degree. She won a scholarship to Yale Law School in 1960 and upon graduating went to Mississippi, where she became the first black woman admitted to the state bar and worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. While there she endured bomb threats and worse. "I remember going to an embalming room with a mother and father to see their boy who'd been killed in jail," she says. "I couldn't understand why he couldn't be controlled by all the cops, why they had to shoot him. Seeing that boy on the table pushed me over into understanding I could deal with anything."

It also strengthened her resolve to push for change. She helped Mississippi win a grant for a Head Start program, then moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968 and with federal grant money began researching ways to aid the poor nationally. That July she married Peter Edelman, a white former assistant to Robert Kennedy. "You don't marry races," she says. "You marry individuals." In 1973 she started the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization funded by corporate and private donations. The CDF now has an annual budget of some $9 million.

Today Edelman lives with Peter, a professor of law at Georgetown, and Ezra in the gracious Cleveland Park section of Washington. She spends as much time as possible with her family. Says Hillary Clinton, a CDF board member and close friend: "Marian showed me how to be a committed wife and mother as well as an involved social activist." It's a tough synthesis to achieve, especially when your work involves bucking the prevailing political tide. "Something went amok in this country over the past decade or so," suggests Edelman, who routinely works 12-hour days. "We were told that nobody had responsibility for anyone else and that the federal government certainly didn't have responsibility for the poor or for blacks or for women."

But don't expect to see her give up anytime soon. On a recent Sunday, four days after the officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, Edelman attended her local Baptist church with Ezra. She and Peter have always raised their boys with a strong awareness of their mixed black and Jewish heritage, but on this day in particular, "I wanted Ezra to see black people dealing with their problems," Edelman says. "We cry and we sing and we pray. And then we get up, and we keep on fighting."

LINDA KRAMER in Washington, D.C.

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