Charles Merrill: The crucial importance of lanterns in young lives

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 1/28/2018, 5:10 a.m.
have been so blessed with an abundance of lanterns in my life who have been indispensable guides and supports over ...

Children's Defense Fund

I have been so blessed with an abundance of lanterns in my life who have been indispensable guides and supports over many decades. I shared many of them in my book, Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors. It has been very painful to lose so many in recent years but they are still very alive with me. Charles E.

Merrill, Jr., a crucial lantern, died in November at age 97. A son and heir to the founder of Merrill Lynch, he endowed a scholarship that opened up the whole world to me as a young 18- or 19-year-old Black girl from a small segregated South Carolina town -- a priceless gift. For the first time in my life in Europe as a Spelman College Merrill Scholar I felt what it meant to be free, to explore and savor new places and cultures and learn that I could comfortably navigate the world and connect with human beings of all races and cultures and faiths. His influence will live on in my children and grandchildren who already are exploring the world and questioning barriers to justice and individual strivings free of unjust social constructs. Equally priceless was his caring friendship and mentorship and example over the years. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for his commitment to empowering the young and his modesty and capacity for friendship that lasted a lifetime. I prayed for his peaceful passage knowing that the many seeds he planted live on in gratitude.

The first morning I woke up in freedom in a Paris hotel across from the Luxembourg Gardens, I jumped up and down and yelled and pinched myself again and again. Having no one, parent or teacher or chaperone, to prescribe the day was a miracle. That’s how I learned I could travel the world without losing my moral compass and common sense and not to fear, indeed to enjoy, being alone. I learned to be comfortable in strange lands with people who speak a different language, worship God in many different ways, have different political systems and ideologies, and the same human longing for freedom. They gave me a chance to get outside myself, outside segregated America, and roam around inside myself where one dreams, prays, and connects with our Creator and others.

When I was 18 years old and a sophomore at all women’s Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ll never forget my fear when summoned to President Albert Manley’s office wondering what infraction I'd been caught doing. And I’ll never forget my elated disbelief at being told I’d been chosen as one of two Merrill Scholars -- the greatest campus honor -- providing a year of study and travel abroad. I ran back to my dorm in tears to call my Mama to share the exciting news which spread like wildfire throughout my hometown of Bennettsville, South Carolina.

I thought how pleased Daddy would be as I still think at every accomplishment. I then ran to thank Howard Zinn who had nominated me. Soon Howie and Spelman’s elegant French department chair and I began discussing where to go and with which group. Smith College and Sweet Briar College were among those offering structured academic and travel programs that lent social protection and guidance abroad. But Zinn insisted that I not go with any group but travel on my own. This was a radical suggestion in the sheltered, planned-down-to-the-minute, closely supervised life of Spelman College.