Michelle Obama mourns slain teenager at Chicago funeral

February 9, 2013

She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to.

First lady Michelle Obama, simply by filing into a church pew on Chicago’s South Side on Saturday and mourning the killing of a smiling 15-year-old girl she had never met, spotlighted the everyday gun and gang violence plaguing the nation’s cities.

“Genocide,” one eulogist called it, lamenting that guns had “become part of our wardrobe.” Another exhorted the politicians in the pews, “Don’t give us lip service.”

The Rev. Michael Pfleger vowed, “We must become the interrupters of funeral processions seeking to bury our future.”

Since being gunned down in Chicago a week after performing with the King College Prep high school’s majorette team during President Obama’s second inaugural festivities, Hadiya Pendleton has become a national symbol for the innocence lost to senseless shootings.


A photo of a letter President Obama wrote to Pendleton's parents, as printed in the glossy obituary booklets handed out at the funeral. The text reads: "Dear Cleopatra and Nathaniel, Michelle and I just wanted you to know how heartbroken we are to have heard about Hadiya’s passing. We know that no words from us can soothe the pain, but rest assured that we are praying for you, and that we will continue to work as hard as we can to end this senseless violence. God Bless, Barack Obama” (Philip Rucker)

Pendleton’s killing resonated far beyond the South Side to the White House, where the Obamas drew parallels between Pendleton and their own daughters.

The first lady, who met privately with Pendleton’s family and about 30 of her classmates, did not speak at the funeral, which lasted four hours. But her appearance carried heavy political overtones, coming as the president is pressuring Congress to enact tougher gun laws.

Obama sat quietly as Pendleton was remembered as an honors student and majorette who loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss and aspired to major in pharmacology or journalism in college. She wanted to go to Harvard.

One after another, Pendleton’s teary-eyed classmates recalled their friend’s contagious smile and soft, baby voice. “She tried to tell a scary story, but no one could take her seriously,” one said.

During the inauguration, another classmate recalled, Pendleton wandered around the nation’s capital so much that she began sweating even in the chilly weather.

A week later, a gunman opened fire on Pendleton and about a dozen other teenagers while they were hanging out at a park after school. Police said Pendleton was an innocent victim likely caught in the crossfire of a gang fight.

For the Obamas, Pendleton’s death on Jan. 29 hit home. She went to school only a mile from the Obama family home. The Obamas thought about their daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, said Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser and close friend of the Obamas.

“It’s personal for us,” Jarrett, who accompanied Michelle Obama to the funeral, said in an interview. “The first lady and I grew up in Chicago. It could have been our daughters. So, as residents of Chicago, residents of the South Side, our heart just goes out to her family. . . . We may not have known her, but she’s a part of our family, too.”

David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to President Obama and also a Chicagoan, said in an interview that Pendleton’s death was “a very sobering thing” to the president, who has grappled with this city’s gun violence epidemic since he represented a South Side district in the Illinois State Senate.

“She put a memorable, recognizable face on what is a grim, stubborn, dismaying problem,” Axelrod said of Pendleton.

President Obama did not travel here with his wife, but the back of a glossy funeral program included a handwritten note from him to Pendleton’s parents, Nathaniel Anthony Pendleton and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton.

“Michelle and I just wanted you to know how heartbroken we are to have heard about Hadiya’s passing,” he wrote. “We know that no words from us can soothe the pain, but rest assured that we are praying for you, and that we will continue to work as hard as we can to end this senseless violence. God Bless, Barack Obama.”

In Washington, Obama is urging passage of universal background checks for all gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He was spurred to action by the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults.

But many more people are killed on street corners in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, something Obama often notes in his speeches about gun violence.

“There have been so many tragic deaths around the country and oftentimes the individual deaths don’t get the attention that maybe an Aurora or a Newtown gets, but the impact it has on the family is just as devastating,” Jarrett said.

Pendleton was among more than 40 people who were killed in Chicago last month alone, making it the deadliest January here in a decade.

“All those lives that were ignored, she speaks for,” Damon Stewart, Pendleton’s godfather, said in his eulogy. “She’s a representative of people across the nation who lost their lives.”

Steve Crozier, 44, a Pendleton family friend, said in an interview that elected officials should be doing more to stop the killings.

“There’s got to be a war against these guns on our streets,” Crozier said. “People say the country is too steeped in guns, but the country was steeped in slavery, too. You’ve got to have the same commitment to getting these guns off the streets.”

Although Michelle Obama did not take the pulpit, she repeatedly was referenced by others who did. “Our first lady of the United States is so gracious — and from her heart she cares,” said Pastor Courtney C. Maxwell, who officiated.

The audience of roughly 1,000 mourners held hands, sang along and swayed during a rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago Public Schools chief, sat with Jarrett and the first lady. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, both Democrats, also attended, as did the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

To Pendleton’s mother, known as Cleo, the show of dignitaries was at times overwhelming. “You kind of don’t know how to act,” she confessed.

Her remarks ranged from the jovial — “If I knew how to dance, I would. . . . We’ve got the first lady as a mother in the house” — to the serious. Of raising Hadiya, she said, “I kept her busy so she wouldn’t run into the element. I had her thinking from the time she could speak.”

As soft organ music played, members of the immediate family received communion. Floral arrangements were carried out and Pendleton’s casket was readied for burial.

At day’s end, a repast was held at the South Shore Cultural Center. On an October day 21 years earlier, Barack and Michelle Obama had their wedding reception there.

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