First lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday speaks about 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed on the South Side of Chicago earlier this year.
First lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday speaks about 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed on the South Side of Chicago earlier this year. Paul Beaty/AP
First lady Michelle Obama gave a personal and emotional speech Wednesday in Chicago as she stepped into the debate over gun control.
"Right now, my husband 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," she said.
The first lady was in her hometown to encourage business leaders to donate millions of dollars to programs for at-risk youth.
It was just two months ago that Obama returned home to attend the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who performed with her band members at inaugural festivities in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Pendleton was shot in January, in a park not far from the Obamas' Chicago home.
The first lady talked Wednesday about growing up on Chicago's South Side. She said she was like many young people in the city now — except she had activities that engaged her, and she lived in a safe neighborhood.
"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," she said.
Chicago's homicide rate declined by 42 percent during the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year, but violence continues — often driven by gangs. The first lady spoke about children who live in Chicago but have never experienced the city's museums or even seen its picturesque lakefront, "because instead of spending their days enjoying the abundance of riches this city has to offer, they are consumed with watching their backs."
Normally, the first lady focuses on military families and childhood obesity during her speeches. But White House aides say Pendleton's death motivated her to address the issue of gun violence.
The first lady also met with students and counselors at W.R. Harper High School on Wednesday. Twenty-nine current or former Harper students have been shot in the past year, eight of them fatally.
Obama spoke Wednesday about meeting with Pendleton's classmates in February.
"It is hard to know what to say to a roomful of teenagers who are about to bury their best friend," she said. "But I started by telling them that Hadiya was clearly on her way to doing something truly worthy with her life."
Obama said she told those teenagers to do the same, and she urged the corporate leaders she spoke with to help provide the opportunities to make that happen.