(MCT) — CHICAGO — President Barack Obama will visit Chicago on Friday, when he will discuss gun violence as he focuses on his economic message from Tuesday’s State of the Union address, according to the White House.
Obama will “talk about the gun violence that has tragically affected too many families in communities across Chicago and across the country,” a White House official said in a statement.
The president’s visit answers Chicago anti-violence activists’ calls that Obama talk about the recent spate of gun violence in the city, several of the activists said.
“This is an important issue,” said Cathy Cohen, founder of the Black Youth Project, which gained about 45,000 signatures by Sunday night in an online petition that calls on the president to address gun violence in Chicago. “We think of this as a victory for all of us.”
The group posted the petition on change.org shortly after 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, whose King College Prep majorette squad participated in inaugural festivities near Washington last month, was shot and killed at a park on Chicago’s South Side.
Since Hadiya was shot a mile from the president’s Kenwood neighborhood home on Jan. 29, during the deadliest January for Chicago since 2002, pastors, parents and activists have demanded that more be done about the violence in the city.
First lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral on Saturday, but Hadiya’s godmother, LaKeisha Stewart, said she hasn’t heard whether the president will spend time with the Pendletons during his trip.
Stewart said she is happy that Obama plans to speak about gun violence in the city. “Any awareness that can be brought to this issue that can prevent any family from ever feeling the pain that we as a family have felt …is awesome,” she said. “This city is in pain right now.”
Nathaniel Pendleton, Hadiya’s father, said his family did not know much about the president’s upcoming Chicago trip, but “if he decided to speak with us, we’ll be more than happy.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said the president’s remarks will play a different role than Michelle Obama’s attendance at Hadiya’s funeral. The first lady did not speak publicly about the events surrounding the teenager’s death.
“Her being there is very important, since it was her neighborhood,” Jackson said. “I think the president’s coming is important because she did not deal with the politics … She dealt with the calming concern for a broken-hearted family,” he said.
Jackson made a public appeal earlier this month for the president to address gun violence in his adopted Chicago home.
Because of the upcoming presidential visit, parents of children who have been shot and killed in the city will finally feel heard by Obama, said Annette Nance-Holt, a mother who lost her son Blair Holt in 2007 after he was shot on a crowded city bus.
“This sends a message to the parents here that their kids are important, too,” Holt said. “It may not have been a big shooting with an assault rifle. But to see him come and hopefully rally some support here means a lot.”
The White House said the president’s visits to Asheville, N.C., Atlanta and Chicago this week will also press issues raised in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
“The president will travel to Chicago for an event amplifying some of the policy proposals included in the State of the Union that focus on strengthening the economy for the middle class and the Americans striving to get there,” a White House official said in a statement.
Clergy on Sunday praised President Obama’s decision to address gun violence in Chicago, arguing his speech could bring greater attention to violence plaguing Chicago communities.
“Hopefully and prayerfully, his coming will make a real impact,” said the Rev. Kenneth Giles of Second Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in the Austin neighborhood. “Now that the nation is focused on (gun violence,) maybe they will hear his voice and hear what he has to say.”
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of Saint Sabina Catholic Church on the South Side, said he’s grateful the president is “zooming in” on the issue.
“What better place to address it than his home and a city that has really become, let’s face it, the poster boy of gun violence,” Pfleger said.
CeaseFire Illinois director Tio Hardiman said the president’s visit was an important symbolic gesture that could influence local youth to take steps to fight against violence in their communities.
“This will put Chicago on the forefront, and hopefully this will trickle down to the young people involved in a violent lifestyle,” Hardiman said. “Hopefully, by the president coming to Chicago, the guys involved in violence will pay attention.”
Clergy, activists, parents and others agreed that they are eager to hear a plan of action from the president to curb violence in Chicago.
Holt said that if the president can set up a task force in Newton, Conn., he can do the same thing in Chicago. Cohen said she hopes to hear a plan on how to get illegal guns off the street and how to get young people working. Jackson said neighborhoods such as Englewood, Lawndale and Roseland need a plan for reconstruction.
Clergy said they hope the president talks about broader factors contributing to violence in Chicago, such as a high unemployment rate and a lack of adequate funding for local schools.
Chicago’s homicides in recent years are far below their annual total of more than 900 in the early 1990s. But while Chicago was moving back over 500 homicides last year, the total fell below 500 in New York City, which has about three times the population of Chicago.
Local officials have stepped up efforts against gun violence. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has moved to strengthen laws for purchasing guns in the city. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also has made an effort to tighten loopholes in the law.
(Tribune reporter Dahleen Glanton contributed to this report.)