First lady Michelle Obama, in a deeply personal speech that contrasted Chicago’s civic treasures with its urban blight, called for more community resources for youth programs and tougher federal laws to combat gun violence.
She traced a thin line separating her life from that of a girl from her hometown’s South Side whose funeral she attended two months ago. Under different circumstances, Obama said yesterday, she could have ended up dead, just like the 15-year-old shot a week after attending her husband’s second presidential inauguration in Washington.
“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,” Michelle Obama, 49, told about 800 business and philanthropic leaders in a hotel ballroom.
Her address coincided with a push this week by President Barack Obama to convince Congress to advance gun-control legislation. He’s seeking tougher controls on guns four months after the shooting deaths of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
“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. “These reforms deserve a vote in Congress.”
Senators Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, said yesterday they’ve reached a bipartisan agreement to expand background checks as a way to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from buying guns.
The Senate plans a vote today on whether to advance gun legislation, with no assurance on its fate in the Republican-controlled House.
Pendleton’s death came from a stray bullet fired about a mile from the first family’s home on Chicago’s South Side. Two young men have been charged.
“What if, instead of roaming around with guns, boys like them had access to a computer lab or a community center or some decent basketball courts -- maybe everything would have turned out differently,” Michelle Obama said.
At the girl’s funeral, she said she struggled for words because “it is hard to know what to say to a room full of teenagers who are about to bury their best friend.”
Pendleton’s parents were among the first lady’s guests at her husband’s Feb. 12 State of the Union speech to Congress.
Too many Chicago children live in neighborhoods “where a funeral for a teenager is considered unfortunate, but not unusual,” Obama said. Academic progress and an appreciation for the city’s cultural and historic riches can be lost because they teens are “consumed with watching their backs.”
Her appearance was a rare venture into policy disputes for the first lady, a lawyer who has mostly shown caution and an aversion to tackling contentious issues while in the White House. She has typically focused on helping military families and reducing childhood obesity.
The president earlier this week pushed for his gun control agenda in a speech in Connecticut, and transported a dozen relatives of Newtown victims aboard Air Force One back to Washington to lobby lawmakers.
Vice President Joe Biden, also playing a major role in promoting Obama’s gun proposals, held a White House event the following day with law-enforcement officials and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder where he retold the stories of some of the victims’ family members he’s met since the Newtown rampage.
Yesterday’s Chicago gathering was organized by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as part of his effort to raise $50 million to combat neighborhood violence by trying to provide more programs for at-risk youths. Two Chicago-area chief executive officers, Tom Wilson from Allstate Corp. and Jim Reynolds from Loop Capital Markets LLC, are leading the fundraising drive, and about two-thirds of the goal has been reached.
The money will be used to try to address some of the root causes of the violence -- poverty, an entrenched gang culture and easy access to illegal handguns on Chicago streets -- as well as provide additional activities for youth.
Chicago saw more than 500 killings in 2012, most of them gun-related. The pace of killings has slowed some, amid colder and snowier weather in February and March as well as bolstered police efforts in the most troubled neighborhoods. Through March 24, there were 69 murders this year, down 35 percent from a year earlier, Chicago Police Department data shows.
After her speech, the first lady visited Harper High School on Chicago’s South Side. Twenty-nine current or former students there have been shot in the past year, including eight fatally, according to the first lady’s office.
She also met privately with a group of students and counselors to hear about their experiences at the school, which is located in the city’s West Englewood neighborhood and where the majority of pupils come from low-income households.
“I want to learn about what’s going on in your lives, what’s going on in your school, your communities,” she told the students. “I want you to tell me what you think I need to know, to tell the president, to tell the rest of the country.”