RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Hundreds of mourners, including first lady Michelle Obama, turned out for the funeral of a 15-year-old Chicago girl. Hadiya Pendleton was shot to death days after she and her high school band performed at inaugural events in Washington last month. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, Pendleton's killing has made her part of the nation's debate over gun violence.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: First lady Michelle Obama did not speak during Hadiya Pendleton's funeral. Instead, before the services, she met privately with the family and with the teenager's classmates and friends. Later, Mrs. Obama stood at the still open casket and comforted the teenager's mother; rubbing Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton's back as she looked down at her daughter and wept. When Cowley-Pendleton spoke, she said she tried to keep her daughter busy so she'd be beyond the reach of the city's gang violence:
CLEOPATRA COWLEY-PENDLETON: You don't know how hard this really is, and those of you who do know how hard this is, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. No mother, no father should ever have to experience this.
CORLEY: Friends and family lined up during the nearly three-hour funeral at Greater Harvest Baptist Church to talk about the girl with the ready smile, the sister who protected her baby brother, and the honor student and majorette who wowed her classmates and teachers with her infectious spirit. Kaylen Jones and many of the other teenagers who spoke about Pendleton identified themselves as her best friend.
KAYLEN JONES: I love her. And, yes, for these few weeks, I've been feeling like there's a part of me missing, but I've since realized she's right here with us. She never left; she's right here with all of us whispering the answers to us in chemistry.
CORLEY: Pendleton was shot in the back on January 29. She and classmates were in a neighborhood park about a mile from President Obama's Chicago home. Pendleton was caught up in a gang turf war, her group possibly mistaken for rival gang members. So far there's been no arrests, and Chicago activist Father Michael Pfleger said it's time to take action.
FATHER MICHAEL PFLEGER: We must become the interrupters of funeral procession. We, all of us, must become the interrupters of this genocide. We must interrupt the code of silence that is hiding people, killers in our own community.
CORLEY: Hadiya Pendleton's death brought new attention to often overlooked urban violence and the debate over gun violence. She was one of 42 people killed in Chicago in January. Her godfather, Damon Stewart, said he went to a Facebook page and saw that someone had asked what made her death more noteworthy.
DAMON STEWART: She's important because all those lives and the voices of their families that was ignored or that were silence, she now speaks for. If they do not know why she is important, she is a representative, not just of the people of Chicago, she's the representative of the people across this nation who have lost their lives.
(SOUNDBITE OF HYMN)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN : (Singing) How many you believe that...
CHOIR: (Singing) We shall overcome...
CORLEY: Mourners sang the civil rights movement mantra, with the first lady and everyone else in the church joining hands as they stood and swayed from side to side. A petition on a White House website had called on the president to attend Pendleton's funeral. Instead, the first lady, who grew up on Chicago's South Side, attended along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. The governor, the mayor and other officials were also present. Outside the church, 15-year-old Shalayah Sledge said it was better that Mrs. Obama showed up for the funeral and not the president.
SHALAYAH SLEDGE: I think if he would have came, that would have been made her funeral more about politics and less about Hadiya.
CORLEY: There was a message from President Obama on the back page of Pendleton's obituary. He told her parents he and the first lady would continue to work as hard as they could to end senseless violence. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.