Marian Wright Edelman

Colorado College Baccalaureate Address - May 16, 1999

Marian Wright Edelman
May 16, 1999— Colorado Springs, Colorado
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I'm delighted to be in this very beautiful place and at this very special time with your president, faculty, trustees, administration, families, and with what I'm sure is the best graduating class in the history of Colorado College.

I'm also very proud to have heard from your president and chaplain that the overwhelming majority of you have engaged in some kind of community service. I hope you will carry that ethic out into your communities, and families, and national and local life, because service really is the rent we each must pay for living, my daddy told me over and over again.

On April 5, 1968, in Cleveland, Ohio, following Dr. King's assassination, Robert Kennedy spoke about the mindless menace of violence in America, which again stains our land and every one of our lives. "It is not," he said, "the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. No one," Kennedy said, "no matter where he lives or what he does can be certain who will suffer from some senseless action of bloodshed. And yet it goes on, and on, and on in this country of ours."

Since Robert Kennedy spoke these words, he and 925,000 American men, women, and children have been killed by guns. Another 560,000 Americans have died violent deaths by other means, in America's undeclared 20th century civil war. Between 1979 and 1991, most shamefully, more than 75,000 American children were killed by guns. This is 20,000 more American children than we lost in the killing fields of Vietnam among our soldiers. During this same period, 375,000 more American children were wounded by guns in their homes, neighborhoods, and schools. This is 225,000 more child gunshot wounds than American soldiers than suffered in Vietnam. It is time for us to stop the convenient ignorance which is snapping out the lives of so many children. From 1968 through 1996, which is the latest data, when one and a quarter million Americans died violently here at home, fewer than 32,000 American soldiers died in military conflicts in other countries. We were 44 times more likely to kill each other than to be killed by any external enemy. This enormous 29-year death toll of American against American and Americans who - unable to face life or find love, hope, purpose, or safe haven in their family, community, faith or democratic civic life - took their own lives, is more than three times the number of reported American battle deaths in all of the wars in the 20th century.

You now know from Littleton and Pearl, Mississippi, and Jonesboro, and Paduka, Kentucky, and Springfield, Oregon, and Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, what Robert Kennedy said that this is not something limited to any single group or race. About half of the gun homicide victims in this period were white and about half were black. Ninety-two percent of the more than 465,000 gun suicide victims were white, and most murders were committed not by strangers, but by family members, neighbors, or acquaintances. Guns have lethalized our despair and anger and turned moments of emotional instability into tragic, permanent loss of lives.

What has happened to us that the killing of children, once morally unthinkable I would hope, has become routine, not only in Bosnia, Brazil, Rwanda and Kosovo, but in New York City and Chicago? A mostly silent, albeit dispersed, equivalent of Littleton's massacre occurs daily, as almost 13 children, a classroomful equivalent, are killed by guns every two days. American children under age 15 are 12 times are more likely to die from gunfire than their peers in 25 other industrialized countries combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even young children are not exempt from this scourge. The figure that upsets me most is that three times more preschool children under five were killed in action here than American soldiers were killed in this period. And, according to the latest data, about 55 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, while 4,600 children were killed by guns in just one year.

Escalating violence against and by our children and youth is no coincidence. It is a cumulative, convergent, and heightened manifestation of a range of serious and too-long-neglected problems. Epidemic child and family poverty, increasing economic inequality, racial intolerance and hate crimes, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, pervasive violence in our homes and popular culture, growing numbers of out-of-wedlock births and divorces, and overly busy and stressed-out parents have all contributed to the disintegration of the family, community, and spiritual values and support all children need. Add to these crises easy access to deadlier and deadlier firearms; hordes of lonely and neglected children and youths left to fend for themselves by absentee parents in all race and income groups; gangs of alienated inner-city and suburban youths relegated to the margins of family, school, and community life, without enough sound home training and education, purpose, jobs, or hope; and political leadership in all parties and at all levels of government that pays more attention to foreign than to domestic enemies, to the rich than to the poor, and to their own political interests than to the interests of children, families, and our community's needs. Add all these and you face what I believe is the social and spiritual disintegration of American society that we can and must act to change today.

Where are the real family values in the richest nation on the earth that lets its children be the poorest group of citizens? What must God think about us with an $8.6 trillion economy while we let our children suffer hunger and homelessness and sickness and illiteracy and injury and death that we have the power, but not the will, to prevent? What does national security mean to millions of children who witness domestic violence every year, and to the million children who are themselves abused and neglected? The plain truth is that we have not valued so many of our children's lives, and so they do not value their own lives or ours in a society in which they have little or no social, moral, or economic stake or sense of community. Countless young people in inner cities are imprisoned by lack of skills, and the future for them means surviving the day, and living until 18 is a triumph. But countless non-poor youths are imprisoned by "affluenza," by too many things with too little meaning, unaware that life is more than an appetite for more material goods, alcohol, or good times. The neglect and marginalization of millions of children by parents, schools, communities, and our nation has turned them first to and then against each other in gangs, and then against a society that would rather imprison them than educate them, engage and employ them. Our market culture tells poor children they must have designer sneakers, gold chains, and fancy cars to be somebody while denying them the education and jobs to buy them legally. Our rich children have many of these things but find they don't satisfy a deeper hunger for connectedness, attention, and purpose beyond self. So both are easy marks for drug dealers and gun manufacturers and sellers in pursuit of new markets for their lethal products. We must begin to deal with these problems as we face a new millennium.

What can we do? We can do a lot. And the first thing we've got to do is open our eyes and see what is all around us and then figure out how we can do something about it. We ought to stop the finger pointing and stop the blame and see how each of us - in our private roles and in our professional roles - can make efforts to ensure that we're sending signals that tell our children that we value non-violence over violence and take the responsibilities as adults to make sure that we're discouraging rather than encouraging violence. We need to recognize that we face a breakdown in American values, common sense, and parent and community responsibility to protect and nurture children, and it is time for each adult, from whatever point of view, to step up to the plate and say, "We are going to try to find a new way to reach out to others and to protect our children=2E" Never has America permitted children to rely on guns and gangs rather than parents and neighbors for protection and love, or pushed so many children into the tumultuous sea of life without the life-vest of nurturing families and communities, challenged minds, job prospects, and hope. Never have we exposed children so early and relentlessly to cultural messages glamorizing violence and sex, possessions, alcohol, and tobacco, with so few mediating influences from responsible adults. And never have we experienced such cumulative and numbing and reckless reliance on violence to resolve problems, feel powerful, or be entertained.

The second thing we must do is stop the adult hypocrisy and double-standards. Today, two-thirds of all black and one-fifth of all white babies are born to never-married mothers. And if it's wrong for a 13-year-old inner-city girl to have a baby without the benefit of marriage, it's wrong for the rich celebrities, too, and we ought to stop putting them on the cover of People magazine. If it is wrong for children to abuse children, it is also wrong for adults to abuse children. It is adults who have engaged in epidemic abuse; it is adults who kill the majority of children. It is adults who have taught children to kill and to disrespect human life. It is adults who manufacture, market, and profit from the guns that have turned many of our neighborhoods and schools into war zones and the blood of children into profit. It is adults who finance and produce and direct and star in movies, television shows, and music that have made graphic violence ubiquitous in our culture. It is adults who have borne children and then left millions of them behind without enough love, attention, basic health care, child care, or moral guidance. And it is adults who have taught our children to look for meaning outside, rather than inside, themselves, teaching them, in Dr. King's words, "to judge success by the index of our salaries or by the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity." And it is adults who have to stand up and be adults and accept our responsibility to parent and protect all of our young.

Third, we've got to stop this distinction in America between our children and other people's children. We can't protect our own children without also trying to reach out and save other people's children, with whom our children have to share schools and communities. I was very moved by a father from New York City who told me about a friend who had done everything right for his own child, played the games, put him in the best schools, really tried to make sure he had the time and attention he needed, but was worried about the fabric of life in New York City and decided to move the boy to the suburbs. It was his only child and, as fate would have it, that child was caught in a cross-fire and was killed. The father was distraught. His friends tried to say, "You did everything you could," but the father responded, "No, I didn't. I didn't pay enough attention to other people's children." We have got to have moral witness among parents and grandparents, among congregations and communities. We've got to reach youth by youth and doctor by doctor and school by school to breathe life again into concern for our democracy, and to risk our comfort and status today for our children's safety and future. Whether you are a hunter or an NRA member or gun owner or not, I hope that all of us can come together to agree that child gun deaths must stop, and join in working and calling for effective regulation of guns as the dangerous products that they are. This is something that the overwhelming majority of Americans and the overwhelming majority of gun owners favor. We regulate toy guns and toasters and teddy bears. What sense does it make to exempt the most dangerous product that kills more than 30,000 Americans a year?

Fourth, I hope we will recognize that individual parents and families cannot solve these problems alone, even though they must take first-line responsibility. I am sharing the struggle right now of one of my dearest, dearest colleagues at the Children's Defense Fund, who has a very gifted son. And in the aftermath of Littleton, I asked him about how this child was doing and how we could be helpful. And here's what he responded when I asked how I could help. He said, "The help his mother and I want is the legal power to prevent anyone from selling, loaning, or giving a firearm to our son without our written permission. My son's 18th birthday falls in the middle of the August congressional recess. My son, at 17 years and 9 months of age, has fallen into severe depression. The psychiatrists have prescribed bio-chemicals and psychologists have engaged all of our family in individual and group sessions. His mother and I are holding him together as best we can with more supports and resources, both inner and outer, than most parents could bring to bear. But we want one thing more, in light of our son's words, which were 'When I turn 18, I can buy a handgun and kill myself and all this will end.' I don't want this to be true," that father said, "I don't want him to realize that he could legally buy death in a longer tube right now. And I don't want him to buy the handy size in three months. My son can't get a driver's license without our permission. My son cannot legally buy beer until his 21st birthday, with or without our permission. His mother and I will, if our luck holds, be able to count our son as an exemption on our federal and state income taxes through his 24th birthday since he's been accepted at eight colleges if our luck holds." He said, "I have no personal objection to firearms. While we have no guns in our home, I served six years as a company infantryman in the National Guard and qualified as 'expert,' a rank above 'sharp shooter,' in all small arms. I do not hunt, but only for the same reason that I oppose capital punishment," he wrote me. "At the age of five, my grandfather, who was a millwright and tool and die maker, taught me that I should not take anything apart that I did not know how to put back together again."

Finally, I hope that we will each respect every child as the sacred being that they are, and raise our children to respect themselves and other children. And I hope that each of you graduates today will determine that you will never become cynical or despondent about your capacity to help transform America and build nurturing families, beginning with your own.

So I want to end with a hopeful story. It is a fictional story by Elizabeth Ballot, but one that I see in real life every day. It's about one schoolteacher, Jean Thompson, and one boy, named Teddy Stollard. On the first day of school, Jean Thompson told her students, "Boys and girls, I love you all the same." But we know that teachers sometimes tell little white lies. Little Teddy Stollard was a boy Jean Thompson didn't like. He slouched in his chair and he didn't pay attention; he was often unkempt and he smelled. He was a thoroughly unattractive boy, and she didn't like him, but teachers have records. And Jean Thompson had Teddy's records. In first grade they said, "Teddy's a good boy. Shows promise in his work and attitude but has a poor home situation." Second grade records: "Teddy's a good boy. He does what he's told, but he's too serious. His mother is terminally ill." Third grade: "Teddy is falling behind in his work and needs help. His mother died this year; his father shows no interest." Fourth grade: "Teddy is in deep waters. He is in need of psychiatric help; he is totally withdrawn." Christmas came and the boys and girls all brought the teacher a present. And they were all nicely wrapped and they put them on Jean Thompson's desk. All except Teddy's, whose was wrapped in brown paper and held together with scotch tape. And on his present, he scribbled in crayon, "For Ms=2E Thompson, from Teddy." She tore open the brown paper bag and found a rhinestone bracelet with most of the stones missing and also a mostly empty bottle of perfume. When the other boys and girls began to giggle, she had enough sense to put some of the perfume on her wrist and put on the bracelet, hold up her wrist to the other children and say, "Doesn't it smell lovely? Isn't the bracelet pretty?" And taking their cue from the teacher, the children all agreed. At the end of the day, when all of the children had left, Teddy lingered, and came over to Jean Thompson and said, "Ms. Thompson, all day long you smelled just like my mother. And her bracelet that's her bracelet looks real nice on you, too=2E I'm really glad you liked my presents." And when he left, Jean Thompson got down on her knees and buried her head in the chair and begged God to forgive her. The next day when the children came, she was a different teacher. She was a teacher with a heart and she cared for all the children, but especially those that needed help - and especially Teddy. She tutored him and put herself out for him and by the end of the year he had caught up with a lot of the kids and was even ahead of some. Several years later, Jean Thompson got this note: "Dear Ms. Thompson, I'm graduating from high school and wanted you to be the first to know. Love, Teddy." Four years later she got another note: "Dear Ms. Thompson, I wanted you to know the university was not easy but I have liked it. Love, Teddy Stollard." And four years later there was still another note, saying "Dear Ms. Thompson, as of today, I am Theodore J. Stollard, M.D., how about that? Wanted you to be the first to know I'm going to be married in July. I want you to come and sit where my mother would have sat because you're the only family I have. Dad died last year." And she went, and she sat where his mother would have sat, because she deserved to be there. She had become a decent and a loving human being.

There are millions of Teddy Stollards all over America, in every community that we have forgotten, given up on, left behind, labeled. How many of them will never become doctors and lawyers and teachers and police officers and engineers because there was no Jean Thompson, no you? How many children will never live because we did not speak up to keep them safe, and how many will not earn a living later because you and I did not reach out to them and vote and lobby and struggle for them? How many times when children needed our attention in our family and I'm as guilty as any other or in our classrooms or in our practice, and we could not take that extra time, and how many times have we been turned off by an unruly and unresponsive child in our neighborhood because we did not want to expend the energy, or simply decided it wasn't our responsibility? Every single one of us can become a Jean Thompson, and every one of us must if we're to feel and heal our children's pain and our nation's divisions. It just takes one person to change a child's life, and to ensure that children like Teddy are not left behind, that they have a safe haven from the street, a voice at the end of the phone, time with an attendant big sister or brother, and a nation that values them. The most important step that each of us can take to end the violence and poverty and child neglect that is tearing our country apart is to change ourselves, our hearts, our personal priorities, and our neglect of any of God's children and add our voice to those of others in a powerful new movement that is bigger than our individual efforts. We must not take the gifts that God has given us without being good stewards of the hope. He has left us and our children in the future.

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