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MLK celebrations end with noted children's advocate "Cradle to prison" cycle threatening King's legacy, she says

By Joshunda Sanders
American-Statesman
Monday, January 23, 2006

The greatest threat to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a "cradle to prison" cycle in which a 4-year-old black boy today has a one in three chance of going to jail, one of the nation's leading advocates for children said Sunday.

"Prison is the new slavery," said Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, at an event honoring the slain civil rights leader. "As we celebrate and remember Dr. King, let's ask God to help us to help our children."

Edelman delivered the keynote address for the 13th annual MLK celebration, organized by the Austin Area Heritage Council. Sunday evening's event included a mention of local civil rights leaders who died in 2005 and an hourlong performance by the Grammy-winning group Sounds of Blackness.

Edelman's appearance capped a week of observances of the life and lessons of King. Edelman once served as legal counsel for one of King's campaigns to help the poor.

Edelman, 66, was born in segregated Bennettsville, S.C., and grew up in a changing racial climate that saw both the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned segregation in schools and the sweeping changes ushered in by the civil rights movement. Her advocacy for children reaches back to the 1960s, when she helped establish a Head Start program for poor children in Mississippi.

She earned degrees at Spelman College and Yale Law School and was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi State Bar. She is the recipient of dozens of honorary degrees and awards and the author of eight books about children and families.

She founded the nonprofit Washington-based Children's Defense Fund in 1973after working as a staff attorney and director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's legal defense and education fund. The group works to reduce the number of neglected, sick and uneducated poor children.

In a calm, erudite tone Sunday, Edelman denounced "special interest groups" who she said make money on the backs of disadvantaged children, calling attention to the 1.4 million children in Texas without health insurance.

She told the audience of about 200 people at the Hyatt Regency hotel sobering statistics about children today: A baby is born without health insurance every 48 seconds; a child is killed by gunfire every three hours; a child is abused or neglected every 35 seconds.

"What is it going to take for us to determine that we will stop killing off our children of every race?" she asked.

joshundasanders@statesman.com; (512) 445-3630