Chicago is in a state of emergency. Lives are being lost. Fear is growing. Local officials, ministers and community activists are working diligently but cannot break the cycle. We’re seeing more than one funeral a day. Our children are traumatized. Many are afraid to go to school.
In this crisis, we need the president’s leadership. President Obama can provide the knowledge, vision and inspiration to bring us together to address the crisis. He can speak to the children to calm their fears.
Mr. President, as you know, last week, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, an honor student who performed in your inaugural ceremonies as a majorette, was murdered, slain when a gunman shot randomly into a group of kids gathered in a neighborhood park less than one mile from your home.
Last year in Chicago, more than 500 lives were lost to gun violence, 175 of those lives under the age of 18. As you know, Mr. President, we don’t make the guns here, they are imported — just as the drugs are imported and the jobs are exported. Children are at risk as a result. Eyewitnesses are too frightened to cooperate. Police brutality has eroded trust. Even those with strong families and strong discipline like Hadiya’s are too often the victims of this emergency.
The threat of violence accompanies the blight of misery. Less than 10 percent of low-income, minority teens in Chicago are employed. The wages of those who have jobs are not keeping up. Hadiya was attending the elite Martin Luther King College Prep High School and headed to college. But too many children are devastated by poverty and dropping out of school, headed to the streets.
The recession has destroyed homes as well as jobs. With mass foreclosures, plywood boards replace windowpanes. Abandoned homes shelter not families, but the desperate. Neighborhoods decline with the loss of hospitals, the closing of schools.
Mr. President, you inspired America with your inaugural call to honor the promise of Martin Luther King. In Newtown and in your gun-violence proposals, you have shown the courage it requires to lead.
After Hadiya’s shooting, more police were pledged to patrol the streets. But as you know from your time on these streets, Mr. President, you cannot police poverty. You cannot police broken dreams or shattered aspirations. Chicago has strong gun laws, but it cannot stop the flow of guns and drugs coming in and jobs going out.
You can issue the summons to America to face this challenge. You can reassure these children that America cares for them and values them, knowing, as you said in your inaugural address, that we are “true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
We know the fierce resistance you face in Washington, where powerful lobbies already are lining up to block gun-violence reforms. Yet, you have moved forward on gun violence, knowing that the summons to Americans is the first step toward overcoming those standing in the way.
So, too, it is with the crisis of Chicago and our cities. The resistance is clear. But by summoning the country to act, by showing the children that this country cares, you can make the first step toward action. You can ensure that Hadiya’s tragic death contributes not to a continuing spiral of violence, but to the first steps of renewal.
Come home, Mr. President, your city needs you.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.