The murdered civil-rights leader’s dream was incandescently alive in 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton as she performed in the national’s capital with her high school band on what was both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Inauguration Day.
She was there not only as a majorette but also as a major success in all areas of her life, as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend, as an athlete, and as an honor student at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep in Chicago.
And to make her presence all the more perfect on this doubly historic day, she faced the world with an unwavering goodness that translated into an uncommon pleasantness. Her presence was at once comforting and inspiring. Her family and friends knew her to be an exceedingly rare treasure.
“There’s not many,” says her godfather, Chicago Police Officer Damon Stewart. “It doesn’t happen often.”
Pendleton was at school on Tuesday, and classes let out early because of exams. A bitter cold snap had suddenly given way to unseasonably warm weather, so she went with the other members of the girls’ volleyball team to a nearby park to enjoy the reprieve. They were nine blocks from the home of the president at whose inaugural Pendleton had performed.
Around 2:30 p.m., a rainstorm swept in. Pendleton and her teammates sought shelter under a canopy. They were joined by a least one boy, who was apparently the intended target when another boy suddenly appeared with a gun and began firing.
A stray round struck Pendleton in the back. The doctors at Comer Children’s Hospital were still fighting to save her when her father, Nathaniel Pendleton, and the godfather, Stewart, arrived.
“They tell us they’re working on her,” Stewart recalls. “Her heart had stopped.”
The father usually picks up his 10-year-old son, Nathaniel Pendleton Jr., at school. The godfather arranged for a police radio car to get the youngster while they waited and hoped. The doctors then said there was nothing more they could do.
Later at the Pendleton home, the mother, Cleopatra Crowley-Pendleton, spoke of a daughter who loved reading and writing and Latin. Hadiya had read the Twilight books in two days. She sometimes spoke of becoming a journalist when she grew up.
Her brother sat looking at cellphone pictures of his sister.
“It’s very painful to see your big sister get slaughtered,” young Nathaniel was quoted saying by the Chicago Tribune.
The godfather had become a cop as a testament to his 12-year-old brother, who was shot to death back in 1985, nearly three decades and thousands of gun deaths ago. Stewart now vowed to do whatever he could to help the Pendletons through grief and pain such as he knew too well.
“It destroyed my family,” he said on Wednesday morning. “I don’t want it to destroy another family.”
As the day progressed, the White House joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel in expressing their sorrow.
“What is best in our city,” Emanuel said of Hadiya.
The father appeared at a press conference with Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and announced an $11,000 reward for the killer.
“They took the light of my life,” Pendleton said. “This guy, whoever he was, the gunman, man, you took the light of my life. Just look at yourself and just know that you took a bright person, an innocent person, a nonviolent person.”
He said of his daughter: “This kid didn’t like violence at all, didn’t even like to fight, avoided a fight, moved away from anything that was not positive. She was a majorette, just came back from the inauguration.”
He was addressing the killer directly when he said, “She was destined for great things, and you stripped that from her.”
The girl who had performed at the inauguration just a week before had become one of 42 people murdered in Chicago since the start of the year, six of them under the age of 18. She would not be going with the band in March to London and Dublin as well as Paris, where she also hoped to study as an exchange student.
She would have been a perfect ambassador, just as she was the perfect majorette on that doubly historic day in Washington. She truly was what is best not only in Chicago but in our country.
She leaves us with the example of her uncommon goodness, which now becomes a challenge.