Michelle Obama Remembers 15-Year-Old Girl Lost To Gun Violence

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images.
When First Lady Michelle Obama spoke on Tuesday night at King College Prep High School's graduation in Chicago, she addressed students, parents, and an empty chair strewn with flowers. The chair was there to remember Hadiya Pendleton, a classmate who'd be graduating today, had she not been was shot and killed just days after she performed at festivities for President Obama's second inauguration.

“If Hadiya’s friends and family could survive their heartbreak and pain, if they could found organizations to honor her unfulfilled dreams," the First Lady said. "If they could inspire folks across this country to wear orange to protest gun violence, then I know you all can live your life with the same determination and joy that Hadiya lived her life. I know you all can dig deep and keep on fighting to fulfill your own dreams.”

Michelle Obama also spoke of her own experiences growing up on the city's South Side, where she has returned many times to meet with young people. Chicago has struggled with gun violence in recent years, and children like Hadiya Pendleton have been caught in the crossfire. In her speech, Obama said she wanted to highlight the "real" story of the neighborhood, which is not one of violence, but one of overcoming adversity.

Hadiya, then 15, traveled to Washington, D.C. in early 2013 to perform with her dance team at an inauguration event, but on January 29, 2013, the drum majorette was killed when two men shot at her group of friends, mistaking them for rival gang members. Michelle Obama attended her funeral, and Hadiya's parents attended the State of the Union, where President Obama decried gun violence and called for better regulations.

After video surfaced this weekend of a McKinney, TX police officer violently restraining a young teenage girl, pulling her braids and shoving his knee into her back after throwing her to the ground, it's obvious that Pendleton is only one of way too many women and girls who have been victims of violence. As more communities confront issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and poverty, activists are trying to keep female names from being forgotten.

Through #Sayhername on Twitter, girls like Hadiya and women like Tanisha Anderson, who died in police custody in Cleveland, can be remembered alongside better-known names, like Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice. A report by the same name released in May laid out years' worth of cases as gut-wrenching as the events that sparked Black Lives Matter marches across the country, but it inspired less public outrage.

Michelle Obama has already spoken candidly and emotionally at another commencement speech this spring. At Tuskegee University's graduation, she discussed the way members of the media have criticized her, and she told graduates of the historically Black college just how personally she connects with the pain of "the realization that no matter how far you rise in life — how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough."

But, she said, "to succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that, in the end, we lose."
This article was updated on June 10, 2015.

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