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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: A Legacy In Purple

What I’ll always remember is the purple balloons.

Hundreds of times over the past 27 years, those balloons have been released in the names of murder victims in Charlotte. In the heaviest moments, when grief weighs down a family and sometimes a whole city, those balloons have symbolized souls that are lighter than air.


One of those souls who created that symbol died the other day. Her name was Judy Williams. And she gave more comfort to more grieving people in Charlotte than anyone else I can think of.

She co-founded the group called Mothers of Murdered Offspring back in 1993, with her son, David Howard, and her friend Dee Sumpter. The group started from a family tragedy. Shawna Hawk – Sumpter’s daughter and Williams’ goddaughter – had been strangled to death in her home. It turned out she was one of the victims of a serial killer named Henry Louis Wallace. But all her family knew at the time is that there was no group to help them deal with the grief and shock of a murder. So they formed one.

Williams – people called her Ms. Judy – eventually became the face of MOM-O. She organized candlelight vigils for victims. She created a display board with photos of every victim and little notes about their deaths, almost like baseball cards. She gave love and support to countless strangers who didn’t know what they needed until she showed up.

I’ve been to several of the vigils over the years. Sometimes the crowd is on edge. Sometimes the pain is so deep that it’s hard to watch. But Judy Williams found a way to both shoulder that pain and set it aside for a moment. We tend to obsess over statistics when it comes to crime — is it up or down, are we a more violent or less violent city — but the numbers don’t matter at a vigil. It is about the tragedy of losing one human life.

Those purple balloons, by the way, are purple because it was Shawna Hawk’s favorite color. So every time MOM-O held a vigil, every time those balloons were released into the air, Judy Williams had to relive her goddaughter’s death a little bit.

To walk back into that fire over and over required a special kind of courage. And because of that, Judy Williams could provide a special kind of comfort.

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