More than two years after the death of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old student who was fatally shot in a Chicago park just a week after participating in a march in Washington to celebrate President Obama’s second inauguration, Michelle Obama delivered a powerful speech to the girl’s graduating class on Tuesday.
In her commencement speech at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory, the first lady, who attended Pendleton’s funeral in 2013, honored the girl’s memory and urged students to rise above the city’s rampant gang violence. An empty chair decorated with flowers and Pendleton’s favorite color purple sat as a tribute to Pendleton in Tuesday’s ceremony.
“I know the struggles many of you face, how you walk the long way home to avoid the gangs; how you fight to concentrate on your schoolwork when there’s too much noise at home; how you keep it together when your family’s having a hard time making ends meet,” Obama said. “But more importantly, I know the strength of this community.”
Obama grew up in Chicago’s south side where the school is located and she spoke about being raised in the neighborhood because she wanted “people across this country to know that story; the real story of the South Side.” She described the “quiet majority of good folks—families like mine and young people like all of you who face real challenges but make good choices every single day.” Obama told the graduates, “I’m here tonight because I want you all to know, graduates, that with your roots in this community and your education from this school, you have everything you need to succeed.”
“Hadiya’s memory is truly a blessing and an inspiration to me and to my husband, and to people across this country and around the world, and we are so grateful for her family’s presence here tonight,” she added. “Love you all. Love you so much.”