May 29 was Memorial Day in the United States, and the long weekend that is traditionally observed with shared American remembrance made headlines again for the shared all-American epidemic of gun violence. The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which keeps track of American gun violence incidents, noted there were at least 175 people killed and another 496 injured during the Memorial Day weekend, and 20 mass shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. This included the mass shooting on a crowded beachside promenade in Hollywood, Florida, that injured nine people, including four children, the youngest just 1 year old. Other shootings happened during neighborhood or community conflicts. Many happened at home, with a family member’s own gun. The Gun Violence Archive now calculates that more than 17,000 people have died so far this year in the U.S. from guns, including more than 100 children under age 12.
June is National Gun Violence Awareness Month, and June 2-4 is Wear Orange Weekend to join thousands of others across the country calling for an end to gun violence in all of its forms, including domestic violence, suicide, and city gun violence. The Wear Orange movement began in honor of Hadiya Pendleton, an honors student and drum majorette who was shot and killed on a Chicago playground in January 2013 just days after she had performed in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. As President Obama gave his State of the Union speech that year, he remembered Hadiya:
“She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. … She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.”
As a sixth grader, Hadiya had appeared in an anti-gang video to encourage other young people to avoid gang violence, saying, “It’s your job as students to say ‘no’ to gangs and ‘yes’ to a great future.” Hadiya could have meant a future like her own; the talented high school sophomore was excelling at her college preparatory school, doing everything right, with the world ahead of her. But all that changed because of a gun. Wear Orange began on June 2, 2015, the day that would have been Hadiya’s 18th birthday. It is now observed nationally every year on the first Friday in June and the weekend that follows. It was Hadiya’s friends who originally chose to remember her by wearing orange, the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others.
Hadiya Pendleton deserved to be protected. She, and the thousands of other children who have been killed by guns in our nation in the ten years since she died, deserved the freedom to grow up. Last year, former first lady Michelle Obama unveiled plans for the Hadiya Pendleton Winter Garden at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. Mrs. Obama said, “I never had the chance to meet Hadiya while she was alive, but after she died, I was able to spend some time with her loved ones. I learned about how she was an honor student, how much she loved music, how she loved going out to get ice cream with her friends. And the more I heard, the more I understood the extraordinary potential inside her — a potential that was stolen by the epidemic of gun violence.” She continued: “Like me, Hadiya was raised by parents who wanted to give her opportunities they never had. They signed her up for volleyball, cheerleading, and a dance ministry at church. They supported her education, and with their encouragement, she became a star student. From an early age, Hadiya’s parents made sacrifices to introduce her to opportunities throughout Chicago so that she could one day find her place in the world.”
Hadiya, who should be turning 26 right now, never got that chance. We must never tire of the really hard work demanded to transform the pervasive culture of violence and pervasive presence of guns in America. We must love our children more than the gun manufacturers and some NRA members love their guns. We must love our country enough to ensure the safety of our children and of all of us and demand the future free from gun violence that all of our children deserve.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.