Best in the Nest Lifetime Achievement Award: Judy Williams (1951-2020)
With each murder that occurs, each life taken too soon, a devastating ripple effect reverberates throughout our community, reaching well beyond the direct family of the deceased. Judy Williams saw it as her life’s work to stand in front of that shockwave and soften its blow.
Williams, who passed away at 69 years old on Oct. 10 after a battle with lung cancer, was the co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring, or MOM-O, an organization dedicated to consoling the loved ones of homicide victims in Charlotte while working to help curb community violence.
Over the years, Judy Williams held nearly 1,000 vigils for victims of violence in Charlotte and surrounding areas. In 2017, I was fortunate enough to spend time with Ms. Judy, as many around the city knew her. When I met her that spring at a funeral for Taylor Smith, a 14-year-old Charlotte girl who had been murdered in Mount Holly just days before, Williams had vigils planned for every night of the week.
The work was grating on her, but she had no idea just how much it was affecting her body. Some months later, she would begin to feel the pains in her back that eventually led her to the doctor’s office and her cancer diagnosis.
Williams later insisted that the massive amount of secondhand smoke she came in contact with during hundreds of vigils over the span of nearly 25 years is what led to her lung cancer, as she had never been a smoker herself. Her claims were never confirmed, but it would be no surprise in the end if Williams did give her life for her work, as tragic as that truth would be.
Upon learning she was a finalist for the national Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s Citizen Service Above Self Honors award in 2010, she told The Charlotte Observer she believed her work was a calling from God, and that it was difficult to accept an award for such a thing.
It was during a record violent year in Charlotte, 1993, that this life became Williams’ reality. Dee Sumpter, a close family friend of Williams and her son David Howard, had just lost her only daughter Shawna Hawk in a devastating manner. Hawk had been brutally murdered by Henry Wallace, a serial killer who claimed 11 victims before finally being arrested in 1994.
As Williams sat with Sumpter, grieving in Williams’ living room, she suggested the trio start a support group for victims going through the emotional trauma Sumpter was experiencing. It was an off-the-cuff idea she thought could help Sumpter refocus her energy during her time of mourning.
“We were trying to really just pull her mind off of this horrific crime that had just happened to her only daughter,” Williams told me in 2017. “I kind of threw that out there, and the next day David said to me, ‘You know what, Mama, that might be the thing that will get her through this and manage for us to get her mind off of all this by focusing it on something else.’”
On March 29, 1993, just a month and 10 days after Hawk’s killing, Mothers of Murdered Offspring held its first meeting.
As the second born and oldest girl among eight siblings growing up in Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood, Williams learned early on to be a caregiver. In 1969, she was part of the last class to graduate from Second Ward High School.
She became the first in her family to attend college, first studying apartment management and criminal justice at Central Piedmont Community College, then later completing her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice at Pfeiffer University.
Williams was mother to five children, and foster mother to several others. Unsurprisingly, she remained extremely active in all of her grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s lives up until her death, and acted as a mother figure to many others.
According to her obituary, written by Howard: “Judy was a natural born entrepreneur and idea generator. The interests over the years included everything from baking, sewing, wedding planning, gadget inventor, song composer, notary public and realtor. Judy also loved music and loved to sing. She passed her love for music on to her children for sure. Her hobbies included collecting rare coins, playing Bible games, backgammon, UNO and watching game shows.”
Most of all, however, she cared about caring for others. When it comes to ripple effects, not many reach farther than Ms. Judy’s — rings of positivity and growth that have touched countless lives in Charlotte and beyond.
When we spoke in 2017, I asked Ms. Judy if her work with Mothers of Murdered Offspring ever got easier over the decades, already knowing the answer just by looking into her eyes.
“I don’t think it will ever get easier, and I don’t want it to get easier. I want it to get easy because it stops. I don’t want it to get easy while we’re still doing it, because we should never get comfortable with people dying, or people being murdered, lives being taken,” she said. “I don’t ever want to get comfortable with that. I want it to be as uncomfortable as it can get for me and everybody else I’m around. I don’t want people to ease into a state of acceptance, to where we just say, ‘Well, that’s just life.’ No, it’s not. I don’t want it to ever be just life. I want people to know there’s something wrong with this. This is not normal. This is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Today, others in the community continue Williams’ work on the ground, inspired by the example she set. But for her, the time has finally come when she can be comfortable.
Now’s your time to rest easy, Ms. Judy.
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