CHICAGO — First lady Michelle Obama, with tears in her eyes and her voice cracking, spoke out for the first time here Wednesday about the gun violence afflicting young people in cities across the nation.
She took a rare step for any first lady into the legislative fight of the hour, saying her husband, President Obama, is “fighting as hard as he can, and engaging as many people as he can, to pass common-sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence.”
“These reforms deserve a vote in Congress,” she said, drawing loud applause from hundreds of Chicago’s business executives and civic leaders who were gathered at a luncheon to raise money for a new anti-violence initiative.
Obama spoke emotionally about attending the funeral in February of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old majorette who was shot in a city park not far from the Obamas’ Chicago house and just days after visiting Washington for President Obama’s inauguration ceremonies.
“As I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya’s funeral, I couldn’t get over how familiar they felt to me, because what I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family,” the first lady said. “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her. But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family, and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya — well, we know that story.”
The first lady described how Pendleton was an honors student and had two devoted parents who were “hardworking people” and “churchgoing folks.” She said the Pendletons enrolled Hadiya in cheerleading and dance classes, as well as the majorette troop, to keep her active and out of harm’s way.
Obama drew parallels to her own childhood in the 1970s on the South Side of Chicago, where, she said, she had just a few more advantages than her peers — including opportunities and adult mentors who pushed her to succeed.
“In the end, that was the difference between growing up and becoming a lawyer, a mother and first lady of the United States and being shot dead at the age of 15,” Obama said.
The first lady described a tale of two Chicagos, lamenting that many children who live in the impoverished South Side have never visited the Art Institute, walked around Millennium Park, strolled Navy Pier or seen Lake Michigan.
“Many of them don’t even know that the University of Chicago exists, let alone dream of attending that university, or any university for that matter,” she said. “Instead of spending their days enjoying the abundance of riches this city has to offer, they are consumed with watching their backs. They are afraid to walk alone because they might be jumped. They are afraid to walk in groups because that might identify them as part of a gang.”
After her speech, Obama visited with students and counselors at Harper High School, one of Chicago’s most dangerous schools. Last year, 29 current or recent Harper students were shot, eight of them fatally.
“I grew up in South Shore,” Obama told the students. “My parents were working-class folks. There isn’t much distance between me and you. . . . In this world today, if you stay focused, you can make it happen. The best thing you can do in life is really be serious about education.”
In the days following Pendleton’s funeral, Michelle Obama decided she wanted to step outside her narrow focus on military families and childhood nutrition to confront the reality of gun violence, aides said.
She decided that Wednesday’s luncheon for a new $50 million public-private initiative to combat youth violence in Chicago would be the right setting to speak out. The event brought together a diverse cross section of the city’s most powerful residents — chief executives and pastors and financiers, Democrats as well as Republicans.
Obama was introduced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), former White House chief of staff in the Obama administration, who is spearheading the fundraising effort. So far, they have raised $33 million, officials said.
Michelle Obama pitched the audience on investing in the program, saying she hopes other cities can replicate it. “This is going to take a serious and sustained investment over a very long period of time, people,” she said. “This is forever.”
The first lady’s aides described her new focus as part of a broader agenda on youth opportunity and empowerment. With her remarks coming amid a contentious debate on Capitol Hill over stricter gun laws, however, Michelle Obama risks being seen as leveraging her widespread popularity and nonpartisan appeal to advance her husband’s legislative agenda.
In advance of Wednesday’s speech, aides said, Obama did not plan to specifically mention gun-control legislation or call on Congress to do anything. In the end, however, the first lady decided to engage fully in the political debate.
After calling on Congress to vote on gun bills, she echoed the president, saying, “We can’t stop all of the violence in the world, but if there is even one thing we can do, even one step we can take to save another child or another parent from the grief that’s visited families like Hadiya’s, and so many others here today, then don’t we have an obligation to try?”
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