Cover image for Lanterns : a memoir of mentors
Lanterns : a memoir of mentors
Edelman, Marian Wright.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Beacon Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xxi, 180 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E185.97.E33 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E185.97.E33 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



I am grateful beyond words for the example of the lanterns shared in this memoir whose lives I hope will illuminate my children's, your children's, and the paths of countless others coming behind.--Marian Wright Edelman, from the PrefaceMarian Wright Edelman, "the most influential children's advocate in the country" ( The Washington Post ), shares stories from her life at the center of this century's most dramatic civil rights struggles. She pays tribute to the extraordinary personal mentors who helped light her way- Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Fannie Lou Hamer, William Sloane Coffin, Ella Baker, Mae Bertha Carter, and many others.She celebrates the lives of the great Black women of Bennettsville, South Carolina-Miz Tee, Miz Lucy, Miz Kate-who along with her parents formed a formidable and loving network of community support for the young Marian Wright as a Black girl growing up in the segregated South. We follow the author to Spelman College in the late 1950s, when the school was a hotbed of civil rights activism, and where, through excerpts from her honest and passionate college journal, we witness a national leader in the making and meet the people who inspired and empowered her, including Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Zinn, and Charles E. Merrill, Jr. Lanterns takes us to Mississippi in the 1960s, where Edelman was the first and only Black woman lawyer. Her account of those years is a riveting first-hand addition to the literature of civil rights- "The only person I recognized in the menacing crowd as I walked towards the front courthouse steps was a veteran New York Times reporter. He neither acknowledged me nor met my eyes. I knew then what it was like to be a poor Black person in Mississippi- alone." And we follow Edelman as she leads Bobby Kennedy on his fateful trip to see Mississippi poverty and hunger for himself, a powerful personal experience for the young RFK that helped awaken a nation's conscience to child hunger and poverty. Lanterns is illustrated with thirty of the author's personal photographs and includes "A Parent's Pledge" and "Twenty-five More Lessons for Life," an inspiration to all of us-parents, grandparents, teachers, religious and civic leaders-to guide, protect, and love our children every day so that they will become, in Marian Wright Edelman's moving vision, the healing agents for national transformation.

Author Notes

Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children's Defense Fund and author of The Measure of Our Success and Guide My Feet. She lives with her family in Washington, D.C.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Driven by the knowledge that she never for a moment lacked a purpose worth fighting, living and dying for, Edelman (The Measure of Our Success; Guide My Feet) recounts how she relied on the strength of her forebears and the hunger of those in need to push her through the halls of Spelman College and then Yale University School of Law. Here, she pays homage to those who have lit her path. As the head of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman recognizes the importance of mentors in the lives of children. She recalls those who encouraged her by word or example to think and act outside of the low expectations many have for black girls and women. She cites her parents as her first guides and credits her father for instilling in her a voracious appetite for knowledge. Other mentors include "unlettered" men and women in the segregated, close-knit community of Bennettsville, N.C., where she grew up. Once she entered the halls of academia, she met others: Dr. Benjamin Mays, former president of Morehouse College; historian Howard Zinn, a professor at Spelman College; and Charles Merrill, who created a fellowship that enabled her to travel to Europe. They helped shape her views by encouraging her to think "outside the box." Other lanterns on her path include Bob Moses, Mae Bertha Carter and Unita Blackwell, the civil rights activists with whom Edelman worked as the first black woman attorney in Mississippi. Thoughtfully written, this book is a testament to family, community and spiritual values. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

At a time when mentoring, as Edelman notes, has become professionalized, she looks back on unofficial and informal mentors, what she calls "natural daily mentors," in her life. The list includes the famous and the obscure, the wealthy and the poor, black and white, male and female, even children. She recounts her childhood in the small town of Bennettville, South Carolina, and her years at Spelman College where Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Zinn, and Charles Merrill Jr. were her mentors. Edelman includes excerpts from a diary she kept while a student traveling in Europe and experiencing freedom from the social constraints of both Spelman and the South's Jim Crow laws. She recounts her initial reluctance to return home, where a "changing South, the civil rights movement, and Dr. King were poised to give a powerful outlet to my longings," and struggling to choose a career, eventually deciding on the law and attending Yale Law School. Edelman went on to join the civil rights struggle in Mississippi in the 1960s and to gain mentors in Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Her involvement in the civil rights movement evolved into an avid interest in antipoverty and children's rights, leading to her creation of the Children's Defense Fund. She met her husband, Peter Edelman, then legislative aide to Robert Kennedy, when she was seeking publicity for the appalling poverty of the rural South. Throughout this absorbing memoir, Edelman's voice resounds with spirituality, a reliance on her faith, and a belief in equality. --Vanessa Bush

Library Journal Review

As president of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman fights tirelessly for the rights of the young. In this memoir, she pays tribute to those who helped shape her life, and shows how crucial their influences were. They include her parents, teachers, and civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Martin Luther King. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One PARENTS AS MENTORS * * * Arthur Jerome and Maggie Leola Bowen Wright The distinguished theologian Howard Thurman once described an oak tree in his childhood yard with leaves that each autumn turned yellow and died, but stayed on the branches all winter. Nothing--neither wind, storm, sleet, nor snow--dislodged these dead leaves from the apparently lifeless branches. Dr. Thurman came to understand that the business of the oak tree during the long winter was to hold on to the dead leaves before turning them loose in spring so that new buds--the growing edge--could begin to unfold. At winter's end, what wind, storm, sleet, or snow could not force off passed quietly away to become the tree's nourishment.     My parents were like that oak tree. They hung onto their children until we could blossom on our own and always put our needs ahead of their own. When I think of them, I think of integrity, consistency, high expectations, family rituals and regularity, prayer, meals, chores, church activities, study, reading, service, and play. I think of common sense and sound choices, of sacrifice and bedrock faith, of their unwavering gratitude and belief in the graciousness and presence of a Creator who gave us life, and to whom Daddy entrusted us in his will. I would have been devastated if I had ever found my parents not to be who I believed them to be. They never let us down.     Breakfast was always ready when we got up, got dressed, and got ready to go to school. A hot dinner was waiting when we came home from school around four o'clock. Our parents worked hard to keep us physically and morally clean and to maintain the rituals of family life and community work.     Mama was a pillar of Shiloh Baptist Church where Daddy was pastor. She was director of the youth and senior choirs which often practiced in our home or at church, church organist, founder and head of the Mothers' Club, and fundraiser-in-chief. Mama was a natural-born organizer of people. She organized the Mothers' Club to emphasize the importance of mothers' leadership roles at home and in the community. She organized a Cradle Roll Department and many other activities for children and young people. She raised the money to help Daddy build the new church and to pay its bills with all kinds of communitywide events and contests: baby contests; Miss Universe contests; Queen for a Day contests; hilarious male-only wedding contests. The winners who raised the most money got bundles of prizes Mama extracted from local merchants and the acclaim of an always jam-packed Shiloh Baptist Church.     With her good and faithful women friends in the Mothers' Club, she prepared hundreds of Christmas bags of cheer with fruit and candy and nuts and threw a big party in the church's educational building, which we called the "hut," for all. For those who couldn't make it into the church the church went out to them. With Daddy or Mama and then alone, after we learned to drive, my siblings and I went to deliver food and coal to the poor on Christmas Day. And we were expected to visit and do errands for the poor, elderly, and sick whenever needed throughout the year.     Mama was the creative entrepreneur in the family. Daddy could not have managed without her. She always had a dime and an idea and a streak of independence that my strong father would try in vain to rein in but could always rely on. He called her "Pal."     As I grow older, I look more and more like her. My mother's strength sustains me wherever I waver in the face of tough challenges. I remember once, after I became a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi, I brought home to visit Mama a small girl who had lost her eye when marauding Mississippi Whites sprayed buckshot through the windows of her family's house. I'd been instructed by Jeannie's mother how to remove, clean, and replace her glass eye, which I felt able to do in theory. When confronted by the reality, though, I quavered. Seeing my hesitation, my mother gently pushed me aside, and quickly removed, cleaned, and reinserted Jeannie's glass eye without missing a beat.     I do what I do because my parents did what they did and were who they were. I first saw God's face in the face of my parents and heard God's voice in theirs as they cooed, read, told stories, and sang to me. I adored Daddy's affectionate nickname for me--"Booster." I first felt God's love in their hands and arms and feet as they held, rocked, fed, bathed, and walked me when I was fretful or sick. I first learned God's caring by watching them care for me and my sister and three brothers and for others Within our family and community. When Daddy's sister Ira got sick, he moved her and her five children to our hometown of Bennettsville, South Carolina, where she later died. Daddy and Mama helped raise Aunt Ira's five children all of whom went on to college. When Daddy's Aunts Cora and Alice got too old to live alone in the red hills of Gaffney, South Carolina, Daddy's birthplace, they came to Bennettsville, where my parents tended to them. When dignified old Reverend Riddick became homeless and others in the community could not care for him, my parents began the first Black home for the aged in our town. Mama ran it after Daddy died. My brother Julian ran it after Mama died. His daughters, Stephanie and Crystal, have run it since he died. Many of my childhood elders have found a caring haven in Bennettsville when they could no longer care for themselves.     I learned to speak the truth because it was expected and enforced in my house. I learned profanity was unacceptable after violating this tenet on more than one occasion and having my mouth washed out with Octagon soap. I learned to stand up when an older person entered the room and to give him or her my seat and to say please and thank you and yes ma'am and no sir to adults. (And I want to tell young and older people--White, Brown, and Black--not to dare call Mrs. Rosa Parks "Rosa" or Dr. Maya Angelou "Maya" or Dr. John Hope Franklin "John Hope" if they are not personal friends.) We need to reinstill respect for elders at all levels of our society and elders need to deserve it.     I learned from my parents that marriage is a struggle and a sacred partnership between two people and a covenant with God and with the children the union brings into the world. I learned that girls are as valuable as boys and that I could go around, under, and over--or knock down--the extra hurdles girls, especially Black girls, face. * * * My parents expected their two daughters--my big sister Olive and me--to achieve and contribute as much as their three sons, Arthur, Jr., Harry, and Julian. I recall my father's palpable disappointment, as I hid behind the tall hedge watching my sister's fiancé nervously ask my father's permission for her hand in marriage, that she, only three years out of Fisk University and a teacher at Benedict College, would think of "wasting" her education and talents by marrying so young. His expectation that she would go to graduate school first to enable herself to contribute even more to others before she married stuck with me as I attempted to give back in service the interest on my own education. My sister, a gifted teacher and teacher trainer, has more than paid her interest, and Daddy would be very proud of her as our whole family is. But I never once considered marrying in my early or middle twenties; I was too busy trying to make a difference as Daddy expected.     The American society outside my home did not share my parents' egalitarian expectations. During my childhood it was the custom of many Black parents with incomes too limited to educate all their children to send their daughters to school before their sons to make their girls less vulnerable to sexual and other humiliations in the segregated South. This led to many educated women marrying less well-educated men. In my hometown, a core of the pacesetters and mentors were refined, college-educated women. But they befriended and respected their many less formally educated women friends, who often possessed enormous mother wit, integrity, love, strength of will, and spirit that no degree could confer. This book is dedicated to three of these unlettered but kind and wise souls. I always knew deep in my soul that Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer's eloquence, intelligence, spirit, and courage, like Mayor Unita Blackwell's brilliance, unhemmed in by the King's English that I was taught to speak and write at home and in school, were as worthy as the words uttered by those with college and professional degrees. My parents and community co-parents taught me not to put on airs or to look down on others who had had less opportunity. They understood the difference between being able to test well on paper in school and to live and serve well every day.     My parents taught us to make sound choices and to focus on the truly important. My brother Harry tells about coming home from Morehouse College for Christmas and gently chastising Daddy for allowing the family car to deteriorate. He had a heavy social agenda planned and needed the car. He also noticed that Daddy's clothes were not up to their usual standards and that his shoes needed to be replaced. Harry called all these things to his attention. Daddy smiled and quietly replied: "My credit is good and I could trade in the car in the morning. I can replace my suits and I can buy new shoes, but your tuition is due in January. I cannot do both. So I have decided to tune up the car, clean the suits, and have my shoes repaired." Daddy died with holes in his shoes several years later. But he had three children who had graduated from college, my brother Harry enrolled in divinity school, my brother Julian enrolled in college and me, at fourteen years of age, dreaming about what college I'd attend.     Daddy believed in God, in serving others, and in education. He constantly tried to be and to expose us to good role models. He invited Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse College's great scholar-president, to come speak at our church and to stay in our home. That visit prompted my brother Harry to decide to attend Morehouse. Dr. Mays promised him a job, which was provided in the Morehouse College kitchen when Harry enrolled several years later.     Daddy would pile us children into our old Dodge and drive us to hear and meet great Black achievers whenever they came near our area. I heard Mary McLeod Bethune and other inspiring speakers at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina--almost 100 miles away. Daddy also would drive us to Columbia to hear Dr. Mordecai Johnson, then president of Howard University, every time he came to speak--usually for several hours--at the city auditorium. I heard illustrious Black artists Roland Hayes, Dorothy Maynor, and my great namesake Marian Anderson sing at Fayetteville State College in North Carolina. I was born a few months after Marian Anderson sang before 75,000 people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, at the Lincoln Memorial, after she'd been barred from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was Black. On a train from New Haven to New York City many years later, I saw Miss Anderson and introduced myself as her namesake. As a brash Yale law student caught up in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, I asked her why she had sung before some segregated audiences. She graciously and patiently explained that sometimes one has to do things one does not like to do in the short term to achieve greater gains in the long term. It's a lesson that I have experienced repeatedly over the years.     The great Black poet Langston Hughes came to my hometown twice during my childhood. The first time he did not mean to come. He was traveling through South Carolina on his way to Atlanta University in Georgia and stopped at the home of a White Presbyterian minister in nearby Cheraw, South Carolina seeking a place to spend the night. The minister, no doubt terrified at the thought of putting up or being seen with a Black man in his racially segregated small town, and with no hotels or guest houses where Black folk could stay, drove to Bennettsville, asked where the Black high school was, walked Mr. Hughes into the principal's office, said Mr. Hughes needed a place to stay, and left. Mrs. Walker, the principal's wife and my English teacher, told me she wandered into her husband's office, saw this familiar-looking stranger sitting there and thought, "It can't be." He looked at her looking at him and said hello. She said, "You can't possibly be who you look like." He answered, "Try me and see." She said, "You look like Langston Hughes, but you could not be sitting here." He replied, "I am and I am going to spend the night at your house." Shocked, she asked if he would read to her class the next day. He said he couldn't but that he would come back. And he did return and read his poems to the whole school. I especially remember "Mother to Son" and "The Negro Mother."     Later, as a senior at Spelman College in 1960, I again heard this great poet who proudly reminds us of our great common Black and human heritage. That he took time to come back to Bennettsville to read to children and that a teacher made sure her students could meet him gave me a special connection to the poet I called in my college diary "marvelous ... down to earth and unassuming"--traits my Daddy shared. I'm so proud that a Children's Defense Fund library at the former Alex Haley farm we now own bears Langston Hughes' name.     Langston Hughes' poetry and books with his wise character "Simple" and Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up from Slavery were in Daddy's home library. I never met Booker T. Washington, but Daddy greatly admired his teachings about self-reliance, individual initiative, community uplift, hard work, education, and service. Thanks to Daddy, I learned how Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee colleague and scientific genius, George Washington Carver, overcame slavery, and molded Tuskegee Institute into a pathway of hope and opportunity for thousands of Black students.     I learned to love to read because my Daddy loved to read and had a study full of books he spent time with every day. On our living room mantel was a complete miniature set of Shakespeare's works. Buying books to improve our minds was an indisputably higher priority for him than buying a toy or nonessential clothing. The value of staying up to date on the latest thinking and developments in one's field was impressed upon us as we watched Daddy and Mama subscribe to theological and church music publications and buy the latest books by leading theologians and thinkers. While cleaning out our house after Mama's death, I was awed and humbled to find years of saved magazines and clippings on teen pregnancy, family values, and race relations. Among a pile of old issues of Christian Century on the freezer on our enclosed back porch was one opened to a page with a quotation by Dwight David Eisenhower underlined in red: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." I had discovered this quotation independently in a Washington, D.C. library several years before, made it into a Children's Defense Fund poster, and used it in many speeches. How reassuring yet eerie to feel Daddy's guiding hand affirming my work for children and my struggle with still misguided national priorities so many years later. Eisenhower's warning is more relevant today than ever.     Daddy and Mama did not confine their self-improvement to reading. They went to Union Theological Seminary (Daddy admired Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, esteemed pastor of Riverside Church, very much), to a Black Mountain, North Carolina conference center where they met E. Stanley Jones, and to Oberlin College for summer courses and other enrichment. They went away every year for a week to the Minister's Institute at Hampton Institute in Virginia, sometimes taking me along. I would wander along Hampton's waterfront and through the chapel and library at the college Booker T. Washington attended and where he later taught while my parents listened to the latest developments in their fields. I'd join them in the evenings to listen to great sermons and choirs.     My belief that I and others could do more than complain, wring hands, or give in to despair at the wrongs rife in the world stems from my parents' examples. Daddy, a teacher-preacher who never raised his voice in the pulpit and who tried to educate our congregation's mind as well as touch its heart, taught that faith required action and that action could be sustained only by faith in the face of daily discouragement and injustice in our segregated southern society. Because the public playgrounds and many public services were closed to Black children, Mama and Daddy made our church a hub for children. Boy and Girl Scout troops, boxing, skating, ball games, and other physical activities provided outlets for pent-up boys' and girls' energy. Choirs, children's days, pageants, and vacation Bible school made church a welcoming haven rather than a boring chore. And the great preachers and role models invited to speak at Shiloh helped challenge our minds and widen our horizons and remind us of the sky above and of the rainbows in the clouds.     My outrage about children who die needlessly from preventable diseases and curable sickness today is a result of my parents' sadness over the senseless death of little Johnny Harrington, who lived three doors down from our church parsonage and did not get a tetanus shot after stepping on a nail. His good and hard-working grandmother didn't have the money or the knowledge to take him to the emergency room and nobody acted until it was too late.     My concern for safe places for children to play and swim comes from the lack of public playgrounds for Black children when I was growing up and our exclusion from the swimming pool near my home where I could see and hear White children splashing happily. A childhood friend died when he jumped off the bridge into the shallow hospital-sewage-infected waters of Crooked Creek near my home and broke his neck. And I almost drowned in a segregated public lake in Cheraw, South Carolina that lacked adequate lifeguard surveillance. Daddy and Mama built a playground behind our church with a skating rink and swings and sliding boards and lights so children could play at night and Mama opened a canteen with sodas and snacks so that young people could have someplace safe and fun to go.     My advocacy for equitable health care for all and outrage that our rich nation denies it to millions comes from the horror Daddy and I felt when we witnessed a White ambulance driver arrive on the scene of a middle-of-the-night collision near our home only to drive away, leaving behind seriously injured Black migrant workers after he saw that the White truck driver with whom they had collided was unhurt.     Daddy died on May 6, 1954--eleven days before the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that he had waited and watched for. My mother carried on our family's rituals and responsibilities valiantly--doing what she had to do to continue preparing us for life.     My concern for children without homes and parents unable to care for them comes from the foster children my mother took into our home after Daddy died. I am still ashamed of my resentment and jealousy when I was asked to share my room with a homeless child for a few days. As I grew older, nearly a dozen foster sisters and brothers were reared by my mother.     An elderly White man asked me what I did for a living when I was home for my mother's funeral in 1984. I realized and told him I do, perhaps on a larger scale, exactly what my parents did: serve and advocate for children and the poor. Copyright © 1999 Marian Wright Edelman. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Arthur Jerome and Maggie Leola Bowen WrightMiz Tee and Miz Lucy and Miz Kate and Miz AmieBenjamin Elijah Mays and Howard Zinn and Charles E. Merrill Jr.William Sloane Coffin Jr. and Malcolm XBob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer and Mae Bertha Carter and Unita BlackwellHarriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Mary McLeod Bethune and Septima Clark and Ella Baker
Prefacep. xiii
1. Parents as Mentorsp. 1
2. Community Elders as Co-Parents and Mentorsp. 10
3. Teachers and Their Messagesp. 20
4. Spelman College--A Safe Havenp. 24
5. Europep. 37
6. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a Spring of Changep. 44
7. The Yale Yearsp. 66
8. The Mississippi Yearsp. 76
9. Mississippi Mentorsp. 83
10. Martin Luther King, Jr., and R.F.K.: A Season of Hope for the Hungryp. 101
11. Movement Timep. 116
12. Great Black Women Mentors and Movement Buildersp. 121
13. Our Children as Mentorsp. 133
14. America as Mentor for its Children and the Worldp. 141
Afterword: A Parent's Pledge and Twenty-Five More Lessons for Lifep. 153
Lesson 1 Always remember that you are God's child. No man or woman can look down on you and you cannot look down on any man or woman or child
Lesson 2 Don't wait for, expect, or rely on favors. Count on earning them by hard work and perseverance
Lesson 3 Call things by their right names
Lesson 4 Don't listen to naysayers offering no solutions or take no or but for an answer
Lesson 5 Don't be afraid to stick your neck out, to make mistakes, or to speak up
Lesson 6 Keep your word and your commitments
Lesson 7 Be strategic, focus, and don't scatter your energies on many things that don't add up to a better whole
Lesson 8 Watch out for success. It can be more dangerous than failure
Lesson 9 You can't do everything by yourself but you can do a lot
Lesson 10 Asking the right questions and measuring the right things may be more important than finding the right answers
Lesson 11 Travel lightly through life and resist the tyranny of burdensome or unneeded things
Lesson 12 Be a pilgrim and not a tourist in life and don't confuse heroism with fame or celebrity
Lesson 13 God has a job for all of us to do. Open up the envelope of your soul and try to discern the Creator's orders inside
Lesson 14 Follow the Golden Rule rather than the world's silver, iron, bronze, and copper rules
Lesson 15 Bear all or most of the criticism and share all of the credit
Lesson 16 Be real. Try to do what you say, say what you mean, and be what you seem
Lesson 17 Avoid high-maintenance, low-impact people. and life in the fast lane
Lesson 18 God did not create two classes of children or human beings--only one
Lesson 19 Don't ever give up on life. It is God's gift. When trouble comes, hang in
Lesson 20 Strive hard to be a good parent
Lesson 21 Be a good ancestor. Stand for something bigger than yourself. Add value to the Earth during your sojourn
Lesson 22 Don't let anything or anybody get between you and your education
Lesson 23 Never judge the contents of a box by its wrappings
Lesson 24 Take responsibility for your behavior. Don't make excuses, blame, or point fingers at others or hide behind "everybody's doing it."
Lesson 25 Possessions and power don't make the man or woman: principles, character, and love do
A Glossary of Mentors and Significant Othersp. 169
Works Citedp. 177