By NICK CHILES
Sometimes it feels like the rest of us operate in a separate world than our lawmakers in Washington. I’ve been getting that feeling a lot lately watching the contortions they have been going through to prevent gun control legislation from even making it onto the floor of the Senate for a vote—never mind actually passing legislation expanding background checks, which is a measure supported by 90 percent of the country.
I also got that feeling listening to the incredibly moving and personal speech First Lady Michelle Obama gave in Chicago on Tuesday about Hadiya Pendleton and the challenges being faced by young people in her city. While the First Lady supposedly breathes the same suffocating air as the Washington lawmakers, she clearly is not from the same world. While they worry about how taking a stand against gun violence might upset the NRA and endanger their reelection, Michelle understands deep down in her gut the world that young people in our country like Hadiya Pendleton inhabit. Because it used to be her world. And when she spoke at a luncheon in Chicago, the first lady brought all the power and emotion of her life experiences to bear.
In the midst of her speech, the first lady delivered one of those shocking lines that remind us how different it feels to African Americans when the occupants of the White House look like us. It was the same shock we got when the president said that Trayvon Martin could have been his son.
Michelle Obama said that when she spoke at 15-year-old Hadiya’s funeral in February, and she was surrounded by the lovely girl’s friends and family, “I couldn’t get over how familiar they felt to me. Because what I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family. 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.”
I have heard it called an accident of birth, this fate that delivers some babies to fabulously wealthy or famous families, and others to circumstances that are desperately poor and unfortunate. Michelle realizes that fate brought her a “blessed life”—but things could have turned out vastly different for her. This realization I don’t believe makes it way across the chambers of Congress and into the hearts of our lawmakers as they vote on measures that control our lives.
“Thousands of children in this city live in neighborhoods where a funeral for a teenager is considered unfortunate, but not unusual; where wandering onto the wrong block or even just standing on your own front porch can mean putting yourself at risk,” the First Lady said. “Those are the odds that so many young people are facing in this city –- young people like Hadiya Pendleton. And we all know Hadiya’s story. She was 15 years old, an honor student at King College Prep. And she came from a good family — two devoted parents, plenty of cousins, solid godparents and grandparents, an adoring little brother. The Pendletons are hardworking people. They’re churchgoing folks. And Hadiya’s mother did everything she could for her daughter. She enrolled her in every activity you could imagine -– cheerleading, majorettes, the praise dance ministry -– anything to keep her off the streets and keep her busy.”
“Hadiya’s family did everything right, but she still didn’t have a chance. And that story -– the story of Hadiya’s life and death –- we read that story day after day, month after month, year after year in this city and around this country,” the First Lady said. “This kind of violence is what so many young people like Hadiyah Pendleton are dealing with every single day. And those two boys charged with her shooting -– this is the violence they were facing as well. And you have to wonder: 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.”
“See, at the end of the day, this is the point I want to make -– that resources matter. They matter. That what it takes to build strong, successful young people isn’t genetics, or pedigree, or good luck. It’s opportunity. And I know from my own experience. I started out with exactly the same aptitude -– exactly the same intellectual, emotional capabilities -– as so many of my peers. And the only thing that separated me from them was that I had a few more advantages than some of them did. I had adults who pushed me. I had activities that engaged me, schools that prepared me to succeed. I had a community that supported me and a neighborhood where I felt safe.”
“And 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.”
Wow. Unlike so many others in Washington, Michelle tearfully, powerfully acknowledged that there were many factors beyond her control that brought her to the lofty place she currently occupies. I think if more of our politicians thought that way, they might be more apt to see themselves or their own children when they look at Hadiya’s angelic face.
The First Lady challenged the people in that Chicago room in the same way that she challenged Hadiya’s friends at the funeral—but you got the feeling she was also sending that challenge to the halls of Congress.
“I started by telling them that Hadiya was clearly on her way to doing something truly worthy with her life. I told them that there is a reason that we’re here on this Earth -– that each of us has a mission in this world. And I urged them to use their lives to give meaning to Hadiya’s life. I urged them to dream as big as she did, and work as hard as she did, and live a life that honors every last bit of her God-given promise.”
“So today, I want to say the exact same thing to all of you. I want to urge you to come together and do something worthy of Hadiya Pendleton’s memory and worthy of our children’s future.”
Do something worthy of our children’s future. I think those are words all of us could live by.
1. A Year Later, Trayvon Martin Stays Lodged in the Psyche of Black Parents
2. ‘They Deserve A Vote’: President Obama Makes a Powerful Case for Gun Control
3. Finally, Obama Going to Chicago to Talk About Guns and Our Dying Children
4. Hadiya Pendleton: Two Charged With Murder In Chicago Teen Honor Student’s Death
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.