At its annual benefit dinner on March 26, 2012, EJI honored founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman (above), and president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Wade Henderson, with its 2012 Champion of Justice Award.
Wade Henderson heads the nation's premier civil and human rights coalition of more than 200 national organizations working to promote a more open and just society through outreach and advocacy. Also the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Professor of Public Interest Law at the David A. Clarke School of Law, University of the District of Columbia, and former Washingtion Bureau Director of the NAACP and associate director of the national office of the ACLU, Mr. Henderson is well known for his expertise on a wide range of civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights issues.
As a tireless civil rights leader and advocate, Mr. Henderson has received countless awards and honors, including the prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. Under his stewardship, The Leadership Conference has become one of the nation's most effective advocates for civil and human rights.
Wade Henderson, center, with Bryan Stevenson and EJI Senior Attorney Angie Setzer
In his speech on Monday night, Mr. Henderson underscored that reform of the criminal justice system in America is a top priority for the civil and human rights community. He generously acknowledged EJI's reform work and expressed deep gratitude for the award, which he shared with his staff at The Leadership Conference.
Marian Wright Edelman has dedicated her esteemed professional career to advocating for disadvantaged children and families. A Yale Law School graduate, Mrs. Edelman was the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's office in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960's and in 1968 became legal counsel for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm, and served as Director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University before founding the Children's Defense Fund in 1973.
CDF has become the nation's strongest voice for children and families. Mrs. Edelman's work has been recognized with hundreds of honorary degrees and awards. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
Mrs. Edelman powerfully evoked the urgent need for advocacy on behalf of children who, like many of EJI's young clients, live in unthinkably horrific circumstances -- in poverty, in violent neighborhoods and families, in failing schools, without adequate medical care, and without hope.
She drew connections between the work of CDF to disrupt the "Cradle to Prison Pipeline" and EJI's work challenging death-in-prison sentences for children and mass incarceration. And she called on the audience of some 200 lawyers, advocates, and supporters of social justice and human rights reforms to devote to all children the same attention, commitment, and resources that they show their own children.
EJI also celebrated the success of Vivian Conwell, an early client of EJI who overcame a lifetime of violent abuse, nearly three decades of incarceration, and drug addiction to become a provider of inspiration and services to at-risk addicts, offenders, and people with severe intellectual disabilities. Overcome with emotion at the benefit, Ms. Conwell simply expressed her love for EJI -- "the only ones, besides God, who never gave up on me."
The evening featured an ecstatic performance by the Newark Boys Chorus, a group of middle-school students under the direction of Donald C. Morris. Founded in 1966 as the New Jersey Symphony Boys Choir, the Newark Boys Chorus School since 1969 has inspired in its students a love for learning, a quest for excellence, and a compassion for humanity. Most of its graduates go on to prestigious colleges and universities.