Newsroom image of kids

Child Watch® Column: "A Call to Black Families"

Release Date: February 25, 2011

Marian Wright Edelman

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. Throughout most of our history, most Black families have been like that oak tree. Despite enormous assaults and pressures, Black parents and elders remained determined to hold on and persevere long enough to prepare the next generation and give them a better life. During Black History Month, many Americans take time to remember the achievements of amazing Black individuals. But Black families deserve their own praise for all we've accomplished. At the same time, we need a new call to action, because our children are facing what I and many believe is the worst crisis since slavery—and need adults' strength and influence more than ever.

Black people devoted to family saw us through the unspeakable assault of slavery. Beloved historian John Hope Franklin and others have reminded us that traditional myths about slavery destroying Black families are a lie: the slavery system and individual slaveowners may have done their very best to try to destroy the families in their control, but it didn't work. When slaveowners tried to mate us for childbearing, we made our own systems of traditional marriages and commitments. When they tried to treat parents and children as nothing more than disposable and interchangeable property, we learned to honor and revere our mothers, fathers, and ancestors and to see our children as children of God.

We've all heard stories of the lengths many newly-freed slaves went through after Emancipation to try to be reunited with family, sometimes traveling for hundreds of miles in desperate attempts to find loved ones. At the same time, we also learned to create other networks of extended family and near-family that laid the foundation for strong Black communities and nurturing Black children. Families saw us through Reconstruction and did their best to shield and protect children during the dark days of Jim Crow, mob rule, and lynchings. Throughout segregation, many Black families and communities reminded children they had dignity and worth. Long before the phrase became popular, our mothers and grandmothers took their time braiding our hair, neatly pressing our clothes, and reminding us every day that Black was beautiful. During the Civil Rights Movement, many Black families fought together every step of the way. Many parents participated in the struggle for an end to segregated schools and facilities because they knew they wanted a better education and world for their children. In Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, and across the South, Black children marched and were attacked right alongside and often without their parents.

Our families have seen us through many crises, but there have also been threats to Black family stability and reports of Black family breakdown throughout our history. Drugs, poverty, violence, and unequal opportunity have battered our families mightily. But many of us who are committed to strengthening Black families believe the forces undermining Black family life are turning in a dangerous way, and many Black children are treading through treacherous new territory. A toxic cocktail of poverty, illiteracy, racial disparity, violence, out of wedlock birth, and massive incarceration is sentencing millions of children of color to dead end, powerless, and hopeless lives and threatens to undermine the past half century of racial and social progress. Those of us who see the threads of our families, neighborhoods, and social networks fraying under the burden just as our children need us most know we need to reweave the fabric of family and community that supported us and got us this far. This is why we've launched the second phase of the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC).

The Black family has been the strongest defense Black children have had throughout our history, and must become so again to help lead this crusade. Our children have been nurtured and protected in the past as best as we could because of the hard work of committed and determined Black adults—and today, it's our turn. Too many Black adults have gone AWOL and need to come home to family. We've already withstood powerful storms and we will withstand this new and dangerous storm by banding together as a Black community to protect all of our children. As the words of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" remind us, we've come over a way that with tears has been watered. We've treaded our path through the blood of the slaughtered. We've already come this far on the way, and it is not time to stray or let our children down on our watch. Wake up and stand up for our children who are asking for and deserve our help.

To learn more about the Black Community Crusade for Children and join us, visit


Let us know what you think about this column:

Enter this word: Change


Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Magee at: December 2, 2011
Great article and well written. Thank you!

Submitted by Lee at: March 12, 2011
i believe i understand why you focus on Black families... how can all struggling families join with each other? well as this motherless child who's 'white' single female aging baby boomer? beyond this essay--i heard you on 'Smiley and West.' Your voice was so clear and strong that i wanted to immediately contact you to volunteer...hounding congress and prez is something that must be done 24/7 apparently.i wouldn't mind doing this! have you any real support from Bernie Sanders? Dennis Kucinich? Al Franken? Off the top of my head, i consider them on 'the good guys.' I just wrote Bernie to tell him to take care of himself 'cause we really need him. I've e-m'd the prez and Austan Goolsbey 9after I saw the latter's sloganizing outted as ridiculous on 'The Daily Show.' i suggested strongly to each that they pay strict attention to Robert Reich, Jos. Stiglitz, Paul Krugman--because their voodoo economics, trickle-down, Ayn Rand selfishness-is-good a prioris are not just morally reprehensible, but empirically proven to be false--rerun Greenspan's public mini mia a 'we're listening and the most transparent admin..' response from our prez. So far nothing from Goolsbey... Since the very 1st day this Feb that I heard GOP GUVS come out of the closet and show their hatred for unions, ergo human and civil rights of all but the filthy rich (feel free to use those 2 words together often!)--I started referring to Martin Luther King's 'Poor People's Campaign' and his last speech being in Tennessee in support of a union...I think my 1st post was on Thom Hartmann's can we build this bridge and breathe life back into this legacy Martin left unfinished? His murderer(s) should know that they can never kill the dream of economic and social justice for 'the least of these.' i hope to work for and with you soon in some way...i'm thinking of going to the event at Hayley Farm; but i haven't had the temerity to check the cost to register...any work exchange possible? i'll stop idea was to donate my time, not request yours! signed, Lee Stephanie, ayn rand's worst nightmare--a poor person poet/philosopher/activist..and aging yippee-hippy who graduated with honors. (i think i just heard her and Greenspan groan...) and i try to always end with: pray for peace AND fight for justice

Submitted by Scotty at: March 2, 2011
more people in U.S. need to read this. WELL PUT

Submitted by Brenda at: February 28, 2011
This a Call to Action that is inspiring and one to be taken very seriously. With forty years of working with adolescents and young adults, I learned early that they are mirrors of the older adults they are around. In answering this call we must seek ways of creating means by which these groups teach each other. It is past time for us to make our approach to this challenging situation from a more holistic perspective. We tend to take youth of any age out of their environment, do something to them, put them back and wonder why what they have been taught/learned is not maintained or continued. Never, it seems do we make serious attempts to work on and in the environment with young and old.

Submitted by Amy at: February 28, 2011
Mrs. Edelman--Thank you for this call to action, and for your beautiful ability to affirm what is good and challenge us to do better. God bless you.

Submitted by Vickie at: February 28, 2011
I so concur. I believe every Black person over forty, who was actually raised, instead of existed living in a house as many of our children appear to be today, has the responsibility to reach one (of our children) and teach them the lessons that afforded our lives the pleausre and success achieved today. I'm putting my money where my moth is through a research based litereary series recently completed entitled: College Must Begin in 8th Grade, that includes: CMB8thGrade All Inclusive Resource Guide: A Conversation COnnecting Dr. Pierre BOurdieu's Capitals to Students Attitudes Toward Education. CMB8thGrade Precollege Planner (Offering scholarships to all academic levels) Their Lies vs. Your Truths: A Practical Guide to Developing 15 Personal Rules for Life (also offering scholarships for all grade levels). Any Black leaders interested in offering some advice to our children fill free to add your response on the CMB8thGrade website: It would be great to have the voices of those who have become a success to guide them toward success. Marian Wright Edelman, are you interested in guiding students through a written foreword in the All Inclusive Resource Guide?

Submitted by Auntie at: February 27, 2011
Well stated. However one element of this struggle should also be stressed. There are many older adults, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and great aunts and uncles, who step forward to be the safety net for young family members. After trying to keep a grand neice from the brink for four years, I find myself five years later tryng to do the same thing for her younger brother. This child is brillant and deserves the opportunity to achieve academic excellence in the university of his choice. Here then is the rub---at 66 years of age, I am tired. Like many of our children he is the victim of bad parenting, abuse and poverty. He brings a lot of negative baggage to my home, anger, oppositional behavior and sullenness. I am trying to hang in there for him, because I do not want to witness the destruction of a very intellectually gifted young man. Know that some of us are trying.

Submitted by linda small at: February 26, 2011
Marian Wright Edelman always brings tears to my eyes but this piece of gracious writing is such a winner. I am printing it to share with others who are elderly and don't have access to her words. We all - no matter the color of our skins nor our religious backgrounds - need to remember this important history.

Submitted by Commit at: February 25, 2011
It's disturbing to see the low values that many of our African American adolescents have adopted. I am a ms principal and the situation is truly a crisis in our community. The lack of self-respect and self disciple is astonishing to say the least. I see two generations of this as I interact with the adults in their lives.

Submitted by lola at: February 25, 2011
As a grandmother of eight, I found this article to be true, so many children are lacking positive guidance and assurance for positive outcomes, daughters verses daughter and children not knowing relatives because you do not condone their lifestyles as a Grandmother and educator it is hard to watch your relatives going in the wrong directions, they feel your ideas of life are outdated and they resort to genocide tactics set forth for them

Submitted by Ali at: February 25, 2011
I think the article was well written and speaks so much truth. Black families must make sure the future generation is successful. I fully support the Children Defense Agency.