Michelle Obama’s Chicago Speech in Historic Context

First Lady Michelle Obama at the podium where she delivered her Chicago speech on gun violence on April 11, 2013. (AP/Beaty)

First Lady Michelle Obama at the podium where she delivered her Chicago speech on gun violence on April 11, 2013. (AP/Beaty)

Michelle Obama’s greatly-anticipated Chicago speech Wednesday, addressing the issue of gun violence in the city where she was born, raised and returned to after law school was a significant moment n her tenure as First Lady for several reasons.

First Lady Michelle Obama speaking during a trip to Chicago, two months ago promoting the Let's Move program in the city's school system.

First Lady Michelle Obama speaking during a trip to Chicago, two months ago promoting the Let’s Move program in the city’s school system.

Foremost, beyond what it means for Mrs. Obama, the Administration or First Lady history is the potential change it may lead to in reducing and perhaps someday even eliminating the epidemic proportion of gun violence which has hit hard a demographic of working-class African-American young people. Nothing a First Lady or President says or does can make a crisis vanish. But it is a start.

You can read the full transcript of her remarks at the end of this article.

In the context of what may be her legacy and the wider one of the evolving public role of First Lady, however, Mrs. Obama’s moments in Chicago yesterday offer a window into how this particular presidential spouse not merely captured the world’s interest almost four years ago exactly to the day – but has managed to sustain it, a remarkable feat in an addled age of perpetual distractions.

First Lady Michelle Obama famously joined some students in dancing the ""Dougie"  in 2011 as part of her Let's Move initiative.

First Lady Michelle Obama famously joined some students in dancing the “”Dougie” in 2011 as part of her Let’s Move initiative.

Some media commentators have speculated that Mrs. Obama’s more recent commitment to the at-risk youth in Chicago will become another “project,” and whether its unrelated to her well-established “Let’s Move” program. Certainly, in its broadest aim the initiatives are related, both intending to provide a level of sustained mentoring, education and productive alternatives to self-destructive habits which, hopefully, will help develop the necessary internal wherewithal for those at-risk youth with the least degree of support – whether it is to make conscious, healthy food choices and integrate necessary physical activity, or to pursue activities and commit themselves to education and other alternatives which lead away from joining gangs, obtaining and using weapons and employing violence or accepting it as a normal part of their lives.

Rosalynn Carter chairing presidential Mental Health Commission

Rosalynn Carter chairing presidential Mental Health Commission, 1977.

The tangible connection between Let’s Move and the Chicago effort might easily muddle in the public mind and, over time, the latter work may be forgotten in lieu of her more famous efforts of the former. One finds this as well with Rosalynn Carter’s multiple projects: she is best known for her successful effort to forge new mental health care legislation yet her work to provide senior citizens with more ready access to processing their Medicare benefits has been largely forgotten – though the two efforts were not unrelated.

First Lady Betty Ford campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment passage in 1975.

First Lady Betty Ford campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment passage in 1975.

Similarly related were the focuses which Betty Ford undertook, all on behalf of women. She is known primarily for her fostering breast-cancer awareness and urging passage of an Equal Rights Amendment, but she also led efforts to educate housewives on economizing food and household budgets during the 1975 recession and bringing much-needed national attention to the disease of lupus which strikes women. All are related but only the first two are remembered.

Despite the fact that most Americans only associate one primary “project” with a First Lady, history shows that Mrs. Obama also continuing her work on behalf of military families is following a pattern begun a century ago by assuming leadership in multiple and unrelated causes.

 Nancy Reagan inspects drug paraphrenalia displayed in the White House.

Nancy Reagan inspects drug paraphrenalia displayed in the White House.

Nancy Reagan, for example, may be best remembered for her “Just Say No” program to prevent drug experimentation by middle-school and high-school age students, but she also remained highly committed to continuing her pre-White House work with the Foster Grandparent Program which paired retired Americans as mentors to young schoolchildren who would otherwise have no adult supervision or guidance.

Laura Bush became the first incumbent Republican First Lady to testify before Congress, doing so on behalf of library funding.

Laura Bush became the first incumbent Republican First Lady to testify before Congress, doing so on behalf of library funding.

Laura Bush was best known for her efforts to upgrade and ensure the continuance of local public libraries as centers for after-school education and for fostering in young people a lifelong habit of reading, yet she also provided continuous leadership for public awareness and prevention of heart disease in women.

In 1921, Florence Harding visits wounded World War I vets at Walter Reed Hospital.

In 1921, Florence Harding visits wounded World War I vets at Walter Reed Hospital.

Florence Harding worked on behalf of economic equity for women, the medical care and rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans of World War I and the animal rights and protection movement. She also made almost militaristic pleadings to the nation’s young women, attempting to stir their grasping of how it was necessary for them as it was for young men to undertake a regular program of healthy physical activity.

Hillary Clinton in the White House Sculpture Garden she began, giving focus to contemporary American arts.

Hillary Clinton in the White House Sculpture Garden she began, giving focus to contemporary American arts.

Hillary Clinton’s unsalaried assignment from the President to lead the Administration’s health care reform effort in 1993 and 1994 still remains the misnomered “project” most associated with her, yet she spent the next six years focused on a multitude of unrelated work: successful adoption legislation reform, a Justice Department office focused on violence against women, funding for new scientific research on breast cancer, epilepsy and prostate cancer, micro-credit loans to women in remote global communities working to open new businesses and shops, funding for the preservation of American historical icons, initiating an innovative showcasing of contemporary American arts inside the White House and outside on the lawn – to name but a few. 

Mrs. Obama’s involvement in the belatedly-organized city of Chicago initiative is unique in that it focuses on a place outside of Washington, but concentrating efforts on aspects of urban life in the national capital city has a long history with First Ladies.

Nellie Taft and husband President William Howard Taft driving to the first pubic concert she organized in the new Potomac Park, which she initiated.

Nellie Taft and husband President William Howard Taft driving to the first pubic concert she organized in the new Potomac Park, which she initiated.

Nellie Taft is largely remembered for “bringing the cherry blossom trees” to Washington.

Nellie Taft's effort to initiate federal workplace health and safety standards was acknowledged in the 1912 press.

Nellie Taft’s effort to initiate federal workplace health and safety standards was acknowledged in the 1912 press.

In actuality, the decorative trees were incidental to her larger ambition to improve the life of District of Columbia residents.

Her initial effort was to develop what became West Potomac Park, to which the trees were transplanted, and use the setting to  provide free band concerts to all classes of the city, a “Democracy Park” concept she first witnessed at Manila’s Luneta Park.

By her last year as First Lady, Mrs. Taft had also successfully convinced her husband to enact an executive order establishing health and safety codes in the federal workplace, ensuring the well-being of hundreds of employees who were all working-class District of Columbia residents.

A newsreel sequence shows Eleanor Roosevelt testifying on the poor conditions in District of Columbia social institutions.

A newsreel sequence shows Eleanor Roosevelt testifying on the poor conditions in District of Columbia social institutions.

Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt focused on life in the District of Columbia, even becoming the first First Lady to testify before Congress after investigating and touring the city’s public institutions such as hospitals, senior housing and care centers and schools.

Eleanor Roosevelt presents Marian Anderson with a medal award.

Eleanor Roosevelt presents Marian Anderson with a medal award.

Alongside these efforts, she also worked to improve the daily lives of the city’s large African-American community, bringing national focus to the city’s traditionally all-black Howard University, encouraging domestic workers to organize as a united force in demanding fair wages and peaceful protest against the city’s segregated restaurants.

While such details are largely forgotten now, they are essentially crystalized in her famous act of resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that organization refused to permit African-American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in its concert hall (although contrary to public perception, Mrs. Roosevelt did not organize Anderson’s public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial).

Jackie Kennedy looks over a model of the new use and historic preservation of Lafayette Square.

Jackie Kennedy looks over a model of the new use and historic preservation of Lafayette Square.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s brief tenure as First Lady is almost exclusively recalled by her historic preservation of the White House but this too was part of a larger umbrella of work she conducted on behalf of the city.

Besides Lafayette Square, Jackie Kennedy also took the initiative in the upgrade of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Besides Lafayette Square, Jackie Kennedy also took the initiative in the upgrade of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Her blocking the destruction of Lafayette Square, the historic park across from the White House and then working to find a practical solution for much-needed executive branch office space there made her a pioneer in what became the historic preservation movement.

She also shared her husband’s desire to see Pennsylvania Avenue upgraded into a national boulevard just as notable as those in European capitals and assumed the role of point person for him on it, an effort which extended far past her time as First Lady.

Not until eight years after she had begun her 1972 efforts to help create a national cultural center did Jackie Kennedy Onassis get to see its manifestation, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts named for her late husband.

Not until eight years after she had begun her 1972 efforts to help create a national cultural center did Jackie Kennedy Onassis get to see its manifestation, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts named for her late husband.

Although it was named in her husband’s memory, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was actually Jackie Kennedy’s passion and she worked on several fronts to help material what was then called the National Cultural Center.

What made Mrs. Obama’s Chicago speech especially powerful was the degree of empathy which marked it and which many commentators found to ring with a solid authenticity. On the surface this might be presumed to be due to the fact that she was born and raised in Chicago and showed her earlier commitment to the city by choosing to return there to live and work, following her Harvard University Law School graduation, when she might have found more lucrative work at a large law firm in another city.

In reviewing her first term as First Lady, however, one can’t help but be struck by the similarity between the Chicago speech on Wednesday to the one she delivered on April 2, 2009 to the one thousand girl students, aged 11 to 17, of London’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School.

Michelle Obama delivering her April 2, 2009 remarks at the London school for girls. (Ngan/AFP/Getty)

Michelle Obama delivering her April 2, 2009 remarks at the London school for girls. (Ngan/AFP/Getty)

The student body is a mix not only of racial and ethnic backgrounds but individuals who were excelling in academics and the arts. In her, as the first African-American First Lady they found a role model and Michelle Obama called them all “jewels,” after their extraordinary show of talent which they demonstrated an displayed for her. She was overwhelmed not just by their performance but the promise they had for fulfilling their own aspirations. In her remarks, she used elements of her own life, maturing through self-discipline and as a minority in a working-class family who managed to succeed academically and professionally and then, through the sacrifices she made on behalf of her husband’s political career, rise with him to become the global symbol she was already becoming at that point.

Mrs. Obama again used parts of her own personal story, as a native Chicagoan, in her remarks the other day and did so with that same sort of passionate conviction which comes naturally from genuine experience.

Florence Harding and her Airedale Laddie Boy who she used as a symbol on animal rights issues

Florence Harding and her Airedale Laddie Boy who she used as a symbol on animal rights issues

And this element is also a central one to the ultimate success of projects and initiatives to which several First Ladies have committed themselves. Florence Harding became a fierce advocate for the protection of all animals against neglect and abuse after one of her own beloved dogs, Hub, was poisoned by some local who disliked either her or her husband – and killed.

Jackie Kennedy was driven to make the White House a place where especially children visitors could see objects and items used by Presidents and to publish a book for them to buy there and take home because of her own 1939 visit to the mansion where she saw none of these things and could find no book to learn about it. She initiated a special program which encouraged foreign exchange students to visit the White House because she had also once been a foreign exchange student in Paris and realized that were it not for the French family with whom she lived, her time there would have been less inviting.

Starting with disclosure of her breast cancer and past consultation with a pyschologist, to consideration of marijuana use, reproductive rights, gender equity, gay rights, couples living together before marriage, Betty Ford led a national dialogue on the societal changes facing American families.

Starting with disclosure of her breast cancer and past consultation with a pyschologist, Betty Ford used many personal challenges to address them as larger national issues.

Enduring the detection of breast cancer and then mastectomy while she was First Lady, an especially personal and private trauma, Betty Ford became all the more committed to raising awareness on the issue as a result of the experience.

The First Lady watches the ceremonial lightiing of the 1958 American Heart Association's annual Heart Fund Drive cake.

The First Lady watches the ceremonial lightiing of the 1958 American Heart Association’s annual Heart Fund Drive cake.

Similarly, her support of the equal-pay-for-equal-work clause of the Equal Rights Amendment had been a direct result of her first marriage to Bill Warren when, following a period of his debilitation, she realized she would have to support him but was not being paid the same salary as men who performed the same job she did, which was then working in a canning factory.

Even though nearly half of what would prove to be her eight years as First Lady had already passed, once her husband the President had experienced a heart attack in 1955, Mamie Eisenhower determined to play a part in national awareness of the disease and began to lead highly successful annual fundraisers for research conducted by the American Heart Association.

Along with their personal connection to an issue they take national as First Lady, many of these women have also employed uniquely personal ways to capture media attention to convey their messages. Michelle Obama has danced on a late-night talk show and been videotaped doing push-ups in the stately old rooms of the White House to get attention to promote Let’s Move! Jackie Kennedy designed Christmas cards to raise money for the National Cultural Center. Nancy Reagan made a cameo appearance on a network sitcom. Lady Bird Johnson made a documentary special.

President Obama signs child nutrition bill as the First Lady looks on, December 19 2010

President Obama signs child nutrition bill as the First Lady looks on, December 19 2010

If Michelle Obama’s Chicago speech can be proven to have returned some focus to  her husband’s pending gun-control legislation, its impact may prove to be less about her as First Lady and more about her as Presidential Spouse. The role of a First Lady in presidential legislation is a bit of a grey realm, one where the passionate commitment to a social issue has to make peace with the practical political realities of any given moment. In some instances what begins as a First Lady’s project will end up as the President’s legislation.

Michelle Obama came to appreciate this faster than many of her predecessors, the Child Nutrition Act which she helped shepherd having found bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by the President – not yet two years into her tenure.

Barbara Bush advocated against illiteracy - but would not do so before Congress.

Barbara Bush advocated against illiteracy – but would not do so before Congress.

And it was signed, sealed and delivered without her ever having to even deliver any testimony before Congress – making her the first FLOTUS to keep off the Hill since Barbara Bush.

Mrs. Bush reading to children.

Mrs. Bush reading to children.

Mrs. Bush resisted the coaxing of Senator Paul Simon to do  so on behalf of a bill which funded the use of public libraries for reading classes conducted for adults who were illiterate. She nevertheless used the problem of adults being unable to read to larger social ills like homelessness and teenage pregnancy.

In other instances, Presidents and their staffs will see growing public relations value and potential political capitol by shaping a First Lady’s project into part of its domestic legislative agenda. The Reagan Administration’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 is an example of the West Wing being inspired by the East Wing.

The case of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson presents an interesting case study in the balance of power in a presidential marriage though that of her project and his legislation.

Lady bird Johnson beautifying by flower-planting.

Lady bird Johnson beautifying by flower-planting.

Although she had always felt a strong affinity for nature, it was in listening to her husband speak about the environment in Michigan which inspired Lady Bird Johnson to take it up as her own special role within the Administration.

LBJ presents the pen he used to sign the Lady Bird Act to his wife.

LBJ presents the pen he used to sign the Lady Bird Act to his wife.

In numerable of the many aspects of ecology, conservation, reforestation, cleaning air and water, she weighed in and left an imprint, but it was after LBJ lobbied Congress hard and won passage of the so-called Lady Bird Act in October of 1965, banning billboards on federal highways that her association with the issue really became associated with her specifically in the media and the public.

From that point on, it was the First Lady’s growing expertise on the subject, her support of specific pieces of legislation and the public awareness campaign she led which, converging with the larger “ecology movement” of the latter 60s, became a defining part of the LBJ Presidency.

Sometimes, there are conflicts. Rosalynn Carter admits that even as the wife of the President she had to argue her case for him to make her mental health reform legislation a priority, in competition with Health and Human Services Secretary Joseph Califano’s agenda. A vigorous advocate for civil rights, Eleanor Roosevelt found herself stymied FDR and some of his aides tactically opposed her on the premise of political expediency.

Pat Nixon visited three African nations at the request of the President during which she conveyed to those nations' leaders US policy views on South Africa

Pat Nixon visited three African nations at the request of the President during which she conveyed to those nations’ leaders US policy views on South Africa

In other instances, First Ladies have agreed to use their public popularity to help push a bill or promote a program or visit a person or country as the President’s representative, which they might never have otherwise done had they not been asked to do so. When Pat Nixon joined her husband on several domestic trips, she agreed to make public appearances at events which illustrated the issues he was discussing with governors and state legislators behind closed doors, one example being her visit to a land reclamation site outside of Chicago while he met Mayor Daley on the business impact there of new environmental protection agency rules.

Jackie Kennedy speaks in Spanish to Venezuelan farmers in December 1961.

Jackie Kennedy speaks in Spanish to Venezuelan farmers in December 1961.

When Jackie Kennedy joined her husband on a South American goodwill mission, for example, he asked her to address crowds both rich and poor, in Colombia and in Venezuela. It was not on familiar territory for her, being a soft-sell speech of his Alliance for Progress program of foreign aid – which not only helped with farming, housing and education needs in those countries but also helped discourage them allying with the Communist Soviet Union (video of Jackie Kennedy’s speech at La Morita, Venezuela at the bottom of this article).

At the end of the day or the end of an Administration, a First Lady’s public activities essentially means that she works for him, however Very Special an Aide she may be. And certainly no amount of good that a First Lady initiates can ever really overcome whatever negative impact her husband may be perceived as creating for the country.

Nor will that most fundamental aspect change when a Presidential Spouse is a man and a President is a woman.

Even if she herself had once been a First Lady.

Bill and Hillary Clinton as President and First Lady.

Bill and Hillary Clinton as President and First Lady.

 THE CHICAGO SPEECH BY FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA, APRIL 10, 2013

Even though it’s freezing cold in April, it’s good to be home. It is certainly a pleasure to be here with all of you today. I want to start by thanking Rahm for that very kind introduction and that very powerful statement of what our kids in this city need, and also for his outstanding leadership here in this city.

I also want to acknowledge Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Thank you all for being here. It’s good to see you. You’re all looking good. It’s very good. (Applause.)

And of course, I want to recognize Jim Reynolds as well as Tom Wilson for taking the lead as co-chairs of the Public Safety Action Committee. Thank you both for your leadership, for your words, for your service. We are so very proud of you. 

And most of all, I want to thank all of you for coming here today on behalf of this city’s young people. I want to thank you for your commitment to their safety, their wellbeing, and their God-given potential. And I know that many of you aren’t new to this work. For years, you have been sponsoring sports leagues, afterschool programs, summer jobs and more.

So you in this room know firsthand the impact that we can have when this city truly invests in our children. And that’s something I know from my own experience, which is why it was so important for me to be here today. 

I’m here today because Chicago is my home. I was born and raised here. I built my career here. Several of my bosses are here — former bosses are here. (Laughter.) I met and married the love of my life here. I raised my children here, who, by the way, still refer to Chicago as home. They believe it gives them a little more credibility. (Applause.)

So let me tell you, when it comes to ensuring the health and development and success of young people in this city, for me, this is my passion, it is my mission. And for me, this is personal because my story would not be possible without this city. 

And that’s where I want to start today -– by talking about our city and the neighborhoods that make us who we are. As you all know, Chicago is truly a city of neighborhoods, separated by parks and boulevards. It’s a city where walking just a few blocks can put you into an entirely different world of experiences. Cut through a park, and you go from English to Spanish, black to white, Puerto Rican to Polish. Cross a few streets, and you go from historic homes and manicured lawns to abandoned buildings and dark street corners.

So the opportunities available to a child growing up in one neighborhood in this city might be vastly different than a child growing up just five blocks away. And that difference can shape their lives and their life prospects from the moment they’re born. 

That was certainly the case for me. As Rahm said, I was born and raised in South Shore. Our neighbors were teachers and secretaries, city workers; also a few professionals, doctors, lawyers, business owners. Most folks weren’t wealthy. A lot of people never went to college. And we generally couldn’t afford things like private music lessons or tutoring.

But thanks in part to this city, our lives were still rich with opportunities. We had decent public schools. I am a product of our public schools. We attended the Chicago Park District summer camps. Got a lot of ribbons from those camps I’m quite proud of. (Laughter.) Played basketball on city courts. Our churches ran programs to expose us to music and the arts. So we didn’t have to be children of privilege to get the opportunity to enrich ourselves.

And back then, our parents knew that if they loved and encouraged us, if they kept us off the streets and out of trouble, then we’d be okay. They knew that if they did everything right, we’d have a chance. 

But today, for too many families and children in this city, that’s simply no longer the case. Today, too many kids in this city are living just a few El stops, sometimes even just a few blocks, from shiny skyscrapers and leafy parks and world-class museums and universities, yet all of that might as well be in a different state, even in a different continent.

 

Because many of our children have never been to the Art Institute or Millennium Park. Many of them don’t even know that the University of Chicago exists, let alone dream of attending that university -– or any university for that matter. They haven’t strolled along Navy Pier. Some of them have probably never even seen the lake. Because instead of spending their days enjoying the abundance of riches this city has to offer, they are consumed with watching their backs. They’re afraid to walk alone, because they might get jumped. They’re afraid to walk in groups, because that might identify them as part of a gang and put them at risk.

 

At Harper High School in Englewood, where I’ll be visiting later on today, a newly-hired teacher noticed that when classes ended in the afternoon, kids would leave the building and walk right down the middle of the street. Now, at first, she thought this was just typical adolescent misbehavior. But one student explained that it’s actually safest that way, even with all the cars whizzing by, because it gives them the best view of any fights or shootings, and they have more time to run.

 

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.

 

Those are the odds that so many young people are facing in this city –- young people like Hadiya Pendleton, whose funeral I attended back in February. 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.

 

And as I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya’s funeral, 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.

 

And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story. Just a week after she performed at my husband’s inauguration, she went to a park with some friends and got shot in the back because some kid thought she was in a gang. 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.

 

So I’m not talking about something that’s happening in a warzone halfway around the world. I am talking about what’s happening in the city that we call home, the city where we’re raising our kids, the city where your businesses operate.

 

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.

 

 

Maybe they would be doing their homework, or taking jump shots, or learning a new program instead of looking for trouble. Maybe if these kids saw some kind of decent future for themselves, instead of shootings, there would just be fistfights, some angry words exchanged. And then maybe — just maybe — today, more of our young people would be in classrooms and at jobs, instead of in custody, facing even worse odds than they started out with.

 

 

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. And that is why this new fund that you’ve created here in Chicago is so important. It is so important.

 

As you’ve heard, this fund will help create those ladders of opportunities for all of our kids. It will give our children mentors who push them and nurture them. It will teach them the life skills they need to succeed. It will give them alternatives to gangs and drugs — safe places where they can learn something and stay out of trouble.

 

Because we know that every single child in this city has boundless promise no matter where they live. And whether we give them the chance to fulfill that promise and grow into productive adults who lead meaningful lives -– see, that’s on us. That’s our job. And our kids know when we’re fulfilling that obligation. They know. They know the difference between lip service and reality. They see it and feel it every single day.

 

So we can host all the luncheons and make all the announcements we want. But at the end of the day, if our kids keep waking up in neighborhoods where they don’t feel safe on their own front porches, if they’re still attending schools with crumbling ceilings and ripped-up textbooks, if there’s nowhere safe for them to go when that afternoon bell rings, then nothing speaks louder than that. Nothing.

 

So let’s be clear. This is going to take a serious and sustained investment over a very long period of time, people. This is forever. And I am here today to join the call to all of you -– Chicago’s most distinguished business and community leaders -– to take up this challenge with fervor. And I hope that communities across America will follow Chicago’s lead to get our young people off the streets and back on track to successful lives. (Applause.)

 

Right now, my husband is fighting as hard as he can, and engaging as many people as he can, to pass common-sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence. (Applause.) And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress. (Applause.)

 

As he has said, we can’t stop all the violence in the world. But if there is even one thing we can do, even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent from the grief that’s visited families like Hadiya’s and so many others here today, then don’t we have an obligation to try?

 

But we all know that these reforms must be just one part of a comprehensive effort to rebuild our neighborhoods and build a better future for our children. And if anyone can make that happen, it’s all of you. You all are some of the most creative, innovative, influential people not just in this city, but in the entire country. You have brought together folks from all across Chicago to do great things for this city, like build Millennium Park, host the NATO Summit — quite well, by the way — make the lakefront the cultural jewel of the Midwest.

 

And today, we need you to dig deep and apply that same passion, determination and civic pride to this city’s most precious asset –- our children. Now, we all take great pride in this city. And I don’t just mean the center of it; I mean every single one of the 77 neighborhoods that make us who we are. Each of these neighborhoods is a vital part of this city, as is every single child.

 

And as business leaders, you all know that this city’s young people are your future workers, your future customers. Their success is critical to the success of your businesses, which is critical to the success of this city.

 

But you all are also here, I know, today because you know that this is about more than just fulfilling a business obligation or a civic obligation. You all know that this is a moral obligation. Because ultimately, this city and this community will be judged not just by the beauty of our parks and lakefront, or the vitality of our businesses, but by our commitment to our next generation.

I think my husband put it best when he spoke to the people of Newtown, Connecticutback in December, and he said this is –- and this is a quote: “This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?”

That is the question my husband asked -– are we truly meeting our obligations to our children? It’s a question we should also be asking in Chicago and in every corner of this country.

And it was the question weighing on my heart when I met with Hadiya Pendleton’s classmates on the day of her funeral. Dozens of them later spoke at the service, each referring to her as “my best friend.” And let me tell you, it is hard to know what to say to a room full of teenagers who are about to bury their best friend. 

But 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.

Join me and Hadiya’s classmates and young people across this city who, by the way, even in the face of so much hardship and such long odds, are still fighting so hard to succeed.

We need to show them -– not just with words, but with action -– that they are not alone in this struggle. We need to show them that we believe in them, and we need to give them everything they need to believe in themselves 

I would not be here if it weren’t for that kind of belief. And I know that together, we can do this. (Applause.) So let me tell you this: I look forward to the work that you do. I look forward to you hitting this goal and surpassing it. I look forward to this city being the model of what communities can do to wrap their arms around our youth and make them the best they can be, to embrace all of our neighborhoods and every last one of our children.

Thank you so much. Good luck, and God bless.

LA MORITA, VENEZUELA SPEECH OF FIRST LADY JACQUELINE KENNEDY, DECEMBER 1961

 

 


Categories: First Ladies, First Ladies Public Image, History, The Obamas

Tags: , , , , ,

6 replies »

  1. Dear Mr. Anthony,
    I couldn’t help but notice it — but the outfit that Mrs. Kennedy is wearing in the photograph, is that THE pink outfit she wore in Dallas?

    • Yes. Contrary to popular belief, First Ladies like all people wear the same clothes to different events over time and Mrs. Kennedy wore that suit on numerous occasons before it became iconic as the one she wore to Dallas when her husband was assassinated right beside her. She was photographed in it during the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis as well.

  2. Interesting about the pink outfit. I thought it looked familiar but it wasn’t until I read William’s comment did it click.

    • Thanks for writing – that suit is perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of clothing in American history when one thinks back through the centuries. Perhaps Lincoln’s hat can compete but really not even his famous stovepipe was a specific article of clothing as was Mrs. Kennedy’s particular suit on that particular day.

  3. Okay, I somehow missed this when Laura Bush was FLOTUS…

    “Laura Bush was best known for her efforts to upgrade and ensure the continuance of local public libraries as centers for after-school education and for fostering in young people a lifelong habit of reading,”

    And yet, thanks to her husbands budget cuts, my local libraries almost closed entirely! All those after-school programs were cut and, even now, the libraries are open very limited hours.

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