Wedding brings joy after sorrow of RFK’s death

Exceprt from: Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
by Ellen B. Meacham

The bride wore flowers in her hair. The groom wore a broad smile and, in a sure sign of the times, a white Nehru jacket.

Among the smiles there were tears, of course; almost every wedding elicits a few. But this early evening wedding in McLean, Virginia, was just five weeks after Robert F. Kennedy had drawn his last ragged breath, so perhaps more than the usual tears christened this couple’s happy day as 200 of their friends and family watched.

Marian Wright and Peter Edelman joined their hands and their lives on July 14, 1968, in a simple ceremony that honored both of their faith traditions. The relationship had started with the surprise of an intense late-night conversation in Jackson a year earlier. It had strengthened as they fought together to help children like the one they had watched Robert Kennedy hold in the Mississippi Delta. It deepened over the ensuing months while Wright took on the challenge of counsel to the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington and Edelman weathered the thrills and challenges of Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

As the campaign in the California primary wound down just a month or so before the wedding, Edelman had selected a glittering bracelet at the jewelry store in the Ambassador Hotel, a birthday gift for Wright. As the returns came the night of the election, for a moment, the future they imagined must have unfurled, bright and exciting, before them.

Then shots echoed through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and into the history books.  The candidate fell. His life ended in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968, Marian Wright’s twenty-ninth birthday. She never wore the bracelet.

On a grassy slope in fellow Senate aide Adam Walinsky’s backyard, Yale chaplain and fellow civil rights activist William Sloan Coffin Jr. stood ready to marry them. Peter Edelman had once clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and he too waited to offer a reading, standing by an arch covered with snapdragons, ferns, and chrysanthemums that glowed palely in the late afternoon shadows.

Wearing a tiara with white roses and ribbons streaming behind, Wright’s caramel skin was a radiant contrast to her knee-length dress of airy, white dotted-swiss. At thirty years old, Edelman looked handsome and confident in his white, high-collared jacket and black pants.

The New York Times noted that the bride and groom spoke their vows to each other “firmly” and then read aloud lines to each other from John Donne’s poem “ The Good Morrow”:

I wonder, by my troth,

what thou and I did,

’til we lov’d . . .

In the stillness that followed, the gathering shadows deepened. Yet the birds still sang their twilight songs, and the laughter of a child playing in the distance carried through the warm air, echoing like a benediction over the union.

Marian and Peter Edelman went on to raise three sons, Joshua, Jonah, and Ezra, and have several grandchildren. They have spent most of their professional lives since 1967 advocating for the poor. When the Poor People’s Campaign dissolved in 1968, Wright Edelman formed a public interest law firm, the Washington Research Project. In 1973, she created the Children’s Defense Fund, a research and advocacy organization. From that platform as founder and president, she has advocated for children’s issues on the national stage for more than forty years, work that would eventually earn her many honors, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. During the course of her career she has worked to pass more than thirty laws aimed at helping children and families, including the State Children’s Health Insurance Program that gave millions of poor children health care coverage with its passage in 1997. Wright Edelman has also written eight books about the needs of children and families and those who work with them.

Over the years, both in interviews and in her writing, she has recalled the lesson of active compassion that Robert Kennedy taught her when he knelt on a dirty floor in Mississippi and held Annie White’s hungry boy. “I remember watching him in near tears because I kept saying to myself,—I had this, this complicated feeling—I was moved by it and wondering whether I would have gotten down on that dirty floor. But, I’m deeply respectful that he did. He could do almost anything a er that, and I trusted him from that time on, just as a human being,” she recalled.

Looking back from 2017, Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s deaths were profound losses, but Marian Wright Edelman said she made a conscious choice to continue her work on behalf of children.

“You get up and you don’t think about ‘what might have been.’ You pick up and figure out what you are going to do next. And the whole question then was how do we end poverty? And that’s still my obsession. How do we end child poverty in this nation? How do we deal with the hunger?” she said.

Wright Edelman said that Kennedy wouldn’t be pleased that American children were still hungry afer 50 years, but he would acknowledge the progress that has been made.

“We still have problems that are significant. There are a number of people who still have no income, and food stamps are the only thing that’s keeping those four million people from starvation. But we have an amazing amount of infrastructure that has been created around nutrition and healthcare. If you look at the legislation that has been passed, the impact is quite extraordinary.”

Peter Edelman, after practicing law and working in higher education, went on to join another Kennedy campaign, this time Edward Kennedy’s unsuccessful primary campaign for the presidency in 1980. Later, he served as a top official in the Clinton administration, but he resigned in protest. When Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill in 1996, Edelman thought it did little to address the problems that existed with the nation’s welfare system, damaged the nation’s safety net, and unfairly penalized poor mothers.

He is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at the Georgetown University School of Law and the faculty director of the school’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. He is also the author of three books about poverty and public policy.

In one of them, Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope, he reflected upon his transformative time with Kennedy in 1967.

“Like many who experienced so much so quickly in the sixties, I was not the same person at age thirty that I had been at twenty-five. I had been shaped by witness- ing injustice in the company of a man who constantly sought it out and tried to right it. His passion to make a difference le a permanent mark. If there was a specific time when the mark became indelible, it occurred a year before he was murdered, when, in Mississippi. . . . I saw children starving in this rich country and at the same time met my wife-to-be.”

The Edelmans celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.