CHICAGO — Nearly two weeks after the death of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton became the face of Chicago gun violence and re-charged a national debate on gun control reform, hundreds of family, friends and dignitaries gathered to mourn her loss and pay their last respects.
News of Pendleton’s Jan. 29 murder shook the nation. The majorette was fresh off of a trip to President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, where she and her band performed. With the world as her oyster, Pendleton had all of the hope, dreams and aspirations that a bright teenager could have, family and friends said. But her life was cut short from what Chicago police say was a case of mistaken identity.
Pendleton’s mother Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton said her last “goodbyes” along with hundreds of people, including first lady Michelle Obama.
“This is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” she told theGrio a few days before her daughter’s funeral. “I have this empty, hollow space in my heart and sometimes, I just can’t move past it.”
As they sat in a packed South Side church Saturday, others waited outside. Many who said they knew Pendleton personally cried, and some even screamed when they were denied entry into her funeral.
Tammie Spraggins, who went to primary school with Pendleton, broke into tears after she was turned away from her former classmate’s funeral. Secret Service officials told her the building had reached its capacity, she said.
“We know her, we went to school with her, we can’t even see her,” Spraggins said while crying. “I can’t see her. I want to see her. People in there don’t even know her.”
Although more than 1,000 people signed a petition calling for President Barack Obama and his family to attend Pendleton’s funeral, many Chicagoans said that Obama’s presence and security detail caused an uproar.
David Larry, 23, likened Pendleton’s funeral to the death of fallen Simeon High School standout basketball player Ben “Benji” Wilson in 1984. “It turned a funeral into an event,” he said.
Larry said that if the White House was drawing attention to the gun violence issue in Chicago or nationally, “This wasn’t the way to do it. It helps show that they care, but they’re showing that it might not matter as much as another child’s life.”
“We love Mrs. Obama, but we feel that family members should be able to get in. We weren’t able to get wristbands,” said Dorothy Terry, 49, who says she’s related to the family.
April Lawson, 45, who lives in Chicago, said Pendleton’s connection to Obama’s inauguration caused much of the national interest.
“Unfortunately if this were an average black kid, there wouldn’t be all of this pomp and circumstance,” Lawson said. “I appreciate Michelle Obama being here, but it can’t be her show now. It’s about the young lady.”
Chicago Congressman Danny K. Davis, who attended the funeral, said the service was sacred and that there was no political agenda. “I was very impressed. There were no political speeches, although there were a number of us there that were politicians,” he said.
Davis was among other notables including Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Governor Pat Quinn, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. He applauded Michelle Obama attending Pendleton’s funeral and said it brought relevance to Chicago’s gun violence issue.
“I think that the First Lady present was an indication of how impactful the situation is, and it was here [in Chicago].”
Rush, who is also a minister, said that even following a surge in gun control awareness, he’s not confident an assault weapons ban would be passed. “I would be shocked and surprised if the Democrats and the Republicans in the House and in the Senate would pass an assault weapons ban. They don’t have it in their hearts. They don’t care about these kind of funerals,” Rush said.
“How do you move a Congress that doesn’t care?” Rush asked. “Legislatively, we are handicapped. Legislatively, it won’t happen unless the American people connect in a spiritual way.”
Addressing Chicago’s gun violence issue, Davis said, “We’ve got to do everything we can to reduce the number of guns in our society, but make sure that the only people who really have access to assault weapons [are] the military and maybe some law enforcement personnel. I think all of this is helping, but it’s going to take a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people.”
Many who couldn’t attend Pendleton’s funeral showed their sympathy at a public visitation Friday. Held at a South Side funeral home, Pendleton’s silver casket was surrounded by flowers and the room had several poster boards filled with messages of love and compassion. Several television screens streamed photos of Pendleton and her family while one was fixed on her lifeless body.
While many knew Pendleton as the majorette who performed during Obama’s inauguration or as a volleyball player, Bryan King, 56, knew her as a “powerful” basketball player.
“She had this beautiful smile. She was a ‘girly-girl,’ but you wouldn’t believe that she would be as strong and tough as she was,” King said. He was her basketball coach in primary school. “She was one of the few girls that really jumped for rebounds. She was tough,” he said slowly smiling and letting out a soft laugh.
A classmate of Pendleton’s, sixteen-year-old Lance Robinson, and two friends wore sweatshirts saying, “Rest in Peace Hadiya.”
As they stood across the street from her funeral Saturday, Robinson gave a lasting memory of his dear friend.
“She always did want to change the world. It’s just a shame she had to die to do it.”
Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.