Commencement Address at Milton Academy

Marian Wright Edelman (June 10, 1983)

In 1983, Marian Wright Edelman spoke1 at the elite Milton Academy in Massachusetts to the graduating class, urging them to take action against the injustices of a society that has money for B-2 bombers and tax breaks for rich corporations but not for health care, not for education, and not for programs to combat poverty. Edelman, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, became the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She directed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi, and later worked as a counsel for the Poor People's March. In 1973, Edelman founded the Children's Defense Fund.

From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove

Where is the human commitment and political will to find the relative pittance of money needed to protect children? What kind of world allows 40,000 children to die needlessly every day? UNICEF estimates that for $6 billion a year we could save 20,000 children a day by 1990 by applying new scientific and technological breakthroughs in oral rehydration therapy, universal child immunization, promotion of breastfeeding, and mass use of child growth charts. At home, where are the strong political voices speaking out for investing in children rather than bombs; mothers rather than missiles?

In 1953 Dwight David Eisenhower warned:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies ... 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.

And how blatant the world and national theft from needy children and the solution of pressing human needs is.

In its first year, the Reagan Administration proposed $11 billion in cuts in preventive children's and lifeline support programs for poor families with no attempt to distinguish between programs that work and don't work. The Congress enacted $9 billion in cuts.

In its second year, the Reagan Administration proposed $9 billion in cuts in these same programs; the Congress enacted $1 billion.

In its child year, the President is proposing $3.5 billion in new cuts in these same programs just as the effects of the previous cuts are being felt and millions of Americans are beset by joblessness, homelessness, and lost health insurance. Thousands of children face increasing child abuse, foster care placement, illness, and mortality because their families are unable to meet their needs while safety net family support, health and social services programs are being drastically cut back.

It is my strong view that the American people have been sold a set of false choices by our national leaders who cell us we must choose between jobs and peace; between filling potholes in our streets and cavities in our children's teeth; between day care for five million latchkey children and home care for millions of senior citizens living out their lives in the loneliness of a nursing home; between arms control and building the MX [missile]. There are other choices—fairer choices—that you and I must insist our political leaders make.

While slashing programs serving the neediest children, the President and Congress found $750 billion to give untargeted tax cuts mostly to non-needy corporations and individuals. And the Reagan Administration is crying to convince the American people to give the Pentagon $2 trillion over a seven year period in the largest arms buildup in peacetime history. Do you know how much money $2 trillion is? If you had spent $2 million a day every day since Christ was born, you would still have spent less than President Reagan wants the American people to believe the Pentagon can spend efficiently in seven years.

When President Reagan took office, we were spending $18 million an hour on defense.

This year, we are spending $24 million an hour.

Next year, President Reagan wanes to spend $28 million an hour. The House Democratic leadership wanes to spend "only" $27 million an hour and they are being labeled "soft" on defense.

By 1988, if the President had his way, we would be spending $44 million an hour on defense and every American would be spending 63 percent more on defense and 22 percent less on poor children and poor families. Just one hour's worth of President Reagan's proposed defense increase this year in military spending would pay for free school lunches for 19,000 children for a school year. A day's worth of his proposed defense increase would pay for a year's free school lunches for almost a half a million low income students. A week's worth of his proposed defense spending could buy a fully equipped micro computer for every classroom of low income children of school age in the U.S., assuming 25 children to a classroom.

How do you want to spend scarce national resources? What choices would you make in the following examples:

• Would you rather build one less of the planned 226 MX missiles that will cost us $110 million each, and that we still can't find a place to hide, or eliminate poverty in 101,000 female headed households a year? If we cancel the whole MX program we could eliminate poverty for all 12 million poor children and have enough left over to pay college costs for 300,000 potential engineers, mathematicians, and scientists who may not be able to afford college. Which investment do you think will foster longer term national security? President Reagan has cut safety net programs for poor families. He's building the MX missiles.

• Would you rather spend $100 million a year on 100 military bands or put that money into teaching 200,000 educationally deprived children to read and write as well as their more advantaged peers? American high school bands would be delighted to volunteer to provide music for patriotic events, I'll bet. President Reagan has cut compensatory education. He's not touched military bands.

• Would you rather keep or sell the luxury hotel the Department of Defense owns at Fort Dean Russey on Waikiki Beach which has a fair market value of $100 million, or provide Medicaid coverage for all poor pregnant women, some of whom are being turned away from hospital emergency rooms in labor? President Reagan has cut Medicaid. No one has seriously suggested curbing military luxuries like this hotel.

• We plan to build 100 B-1 bombers at a cost of $250 million each. If we build 91—nine fewer—we could finance Medicaid for all poor pregnant women and children living below the poverty level. Do you think this will threaten our national security?

• Whose hunger would you rather quench? Secretary Weinberger's or a poor child in child care? Every time Secretary [of Defense Caspar] Weinberger and his elite colleagues sit down in his private Pentagon dining room staffed by 19, they pay $2.87 a meal and we taxpayers pay $ 12.06. This $12.06 could provide 40 mid-morning milk and juice and cracker snacks President Reagan has forced poor children of working mothers in child care centers to give up. I think we should urge Secretary Weinberger to eat in one of the four other Pentagon executive dining rooms and give one million food supplements back to poor children instead.

Just as I believe we ought to weigh military nonessentials against civilian essentials—and apply the same standards of national purpose, efficiency and effectiveness to military programs as we do to domestic ones—I also believe that the non-needy should bear a fair portion of the burden of economic recovery. They have not....

As you go out into the world, try to keep your eye on the human bottom line. I also hope you will understand and be tough about what is needed to solve problems, change attitudes, and bring about needed changes in our society. Democracy is not a spectator sport.


1 Marian Wright Edelman, Commencement Address at Milton Academy (June 10, 1983). Speech delivered in Milton, Massachusetts. Personal manuscript of Marian Wright Edelman. Selection from pp. 2-5,6.

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