By David Pendered
The words of a Spelman College graduate were a guiding principle in the historic bankruptcy settlement of Detroit.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” is the quote by Marian Wright Edelman, valedictorian, Class of 1960, and 11-year chair of Spelman’s Board of Trustees. Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973 and serves as its president.
The words are cited in the opinion issued Nov. 7 by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, of the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern District.
Rhodes presided over a fiscal resolution that’s been described as historic for the way it unified the resources of Detroit’s civic, cultural and non-profit organizations to resolve the city’s $18 billion bankruptcy case.
Rhodes’ ruling indicated that he reflected on Edelman’s words during his deliberations. The judge said the quote was introduced to the proceedings in testimony from Fredia Butler, a community rights activist.
The quote appears in the fourth paragraph cited below. This is an excerpt from the conclusion of Rhodes’ ruling, which is a written version released after the oral presentation:
- “Before I conclude, I want to address the people of the City of Detroit, whose passion for this City is remarkable in its breadth, in its expression, and in its unwavering endurance. I just said that your leaders are about to get the City back. Actually of course, it is you who are about to get your City back. It is your City.
- “A large number of you told me that you were angry that your City was taken away from you and put into bankruptcy. You told me in your court papers. You told me in your statements in court. You told me in your blogs, letters, and protests. I heard you.
- “I urge you now not to forget your anger. Your enduring and collective memory of what happened here, and your memory of your anger about it, will be exactly what will prevent this from ever happening again. It must never happen again.
“When Fredia Butler testified during the confirmation hearing, she quoted the great wisdom of Marian Wright Edelman, who said, ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport.’ And so I ask you, for the good of the City’s fresh start, to move past your anger. Move past it and join in the work that is necessary to fix this City. Help your City leaders do that. It is your City.”
The origin of the quote varies among reports. “The Quotable Graduate,” a book, dates it to a commencement address in 1992; “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” a non-profit organization, dates the quote in a post on its Facebook page to a commencement address in 1983.
Edelman was born in 1939. She grew up in the segregated south, in Bennettsville, S.C. and became active in the civil rights movement while at Spelman, according to a profile in thegrio.com. Edelman was arrested during a sit-in in Atlanta, an incident that focused her attention on studying the law, according to the profile.
Edelman was graduated from Yale Law School and worked with the NAACP in Mississippi before moving to Washington to serve as a lawyer for the Poor People’s Campaign being started by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., according to her biography on childrensdefense.org.
Edelman soon moved on to Harvard University, where she directed the Center for Law and Education. She left after two years to start the Children’s Defense Fund, according to childrensdefense.org.