Nathaniel A. Pendleton, Sr., father of Hadiya Pendleton, speaks about about daughter’s death as his wife, Cleopatra, looks on (NNPA Photo by Roy Lewis).
After a long day of travelling, then networking on Capitol Hill, Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendleton returned to their downtown Washington, D.C. hotel and dressed for a dinner in their honor. Later that evening, they shook hands and smiled for photographs as they accepted the 2014 NNPA Newsmaker of the Year Award, an accolade they earned as a result of their work against gun violence in the aftermath of their15 year-old daughter’s death. They shared the honor with the parents of Jordan Davis, a Black teen killed in Jacksonville, Fla.
“We are mourning still. We still wake up every day and have to determine what to do, whether what we’re doing is right for us,” Cleopatra says. “So many people want to see something positive come from this, a lot of people came to us and said we need to do something. They empowered us.”
Not as much as the parents have empowered Black America.
On January 29, 2013 their daughter, Hadiya Pendleton, went to the park with friends to enjoy an unseasonably warm Chicago afternoon after a day of final exams. There, her life was taken by a pair of gang-affiliated young men not much older than she, who fired into the group of teens sheltering from a passing rain after mistaking one of them for a rival gang member. Hadiya was hit in the back and passed away in the arms of two friends.
For months afterward, her name was emblazoned in headlines, sometimes with a days-old photo of her performing in President Barack Obama’s second Inaugural Parade. Other times, the headlines accompanied a video of her parents, evenly imploring the nation to honor Hadiya and other victims by passing common-sense gun laws.
Hadiya’s death was the last of 44 homicides that month in Chicago.
In the Black community, gun violence is horrifyingly common.
Homicide is the number-one cause of death for Black males ages 15 to 34, according to 2010 data collected by the Centers for Disease Control. Between 2008 and 2009, Black teenage boys were eight times as likely to die (and 25 times as likely to be injured) at the barrel of a gun than White teen boys.
Globally, a report released last year by the Institutes of Medicine and the National Research Council finds that the rate of firearm-related homicide is 19.5 times higher than the rates in other industrialized countries.
“Sometimes a person that’s just interested [in reducing gun violence] can be a little more insensitive without knowing they are. But people who’ve been there—you don’t even have to say certain things,” Nathaniel says.
“—They can look into our eyes and see when we’ve had enough,” Cleopatra adds, finishing his sentence.
Like Ronald Davis and Lucia McBath (Jordan Davis’ parents), and Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s parents) before them, the Pendletons join a growing movement of parents who have lost their children in a country that makes it easy for anyone to obtain guns, legally and illegally. The Pendletons are using their still-fresh grief as a platform, telling their story in TIME, TheChicago Tribune, the Associated Press, MSNBC, and more media outlets in the hopes of spurring change.
In addition, the family is launching the Hadiya Foundation, a non-profit that hopes to heal Chicago by creating a community of support and embracing at-risk youth. Two weeks ago, they received the keys for their new office space; currently, they are seeking funding and skilled individuals to help actualize and grow the organization.
“Us trying to reach and help other at-risk young adults is our way of trying to find some sort of forgiveness. In the end, you’ve got to have some sort of closure,” Nathaniel explains. “I’m learning to understand the younger generation…the best way to understand is to try to talk to and interact with them. I’ve learned a lot of them just need someone to talk to, to vent to. A lot of them are raising themselves.”
The Newsmaker of the Year Award is awarded to someone who has made significant news in the Black Press during the previous year. Only one person is usually awarded, but an exception was made this year to honor both the Pendletons, and Ronald Davis and Lucia Mcbath for their tireless work on gun control in the wake of their children’s deaths.
And the fight is far from over. Last April, three key gun control bills—a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and expanded background checks—all died in the Senate, as survivors of recent mass shootings looked on from the Senate gallery. It was perhaps the last opportunity for the Obama administration to legislate gun control.
“[Gun control] is a very real issue for us. Hadiya was just a kid in high school hanging out with her buddies,” Cleopatra says of her daughter, a loved older sister, drum majorette, and honors student who was just beginning to think about her future. “It’s not just those in the element being harmed. [Her death] is like a banner that reads ‘Coming to a Porch Near You.’”