On Tuesday night WFAE’s "Charlotte Talks" will host a public conversation event at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church to discuss what can be done to combat Charlotte’s rise in homicides.
The event, moderated by "Charlotte Talks" host Mike Collins, starts at 7:30 p.m. and you can hear the conversation at 9 a.m. Wednesday on Charlotte Talks.
But before we turn to that conversation, we hear a personal one from Judy Williams, one of the founding members of the group Mothers of Murdered Offspring, which offers support for grieving families dealing with a loss from homicide. Williams' own story inspired her to start the group.
The first person to answer Judy Williams’ door isn’t Williams — it’s one of her adult grandkids.
Three of them flock around her asking if she needs anything and how she’s feeling.
That’s partly because Williams, one of the founding members of the local organization, Mothers of Murdered Offspring, has stage 4 lung cancer.
"Since I got sick, they're just around all the time," she said. "But I don’t knock it because they all thought I was dying and I probably still am, but hopefully it's not going to be today."
Sixty-eight-year-old Williams describes her condition as stable. She’s done with chemotherapy treatments and says she’s not doing any more radiation, which took a toll on her physically.
The first oncologist she said she saw told her she wouldn’t be alive around this time, but Judy’s still here. And she’s still doing the work she’s done the past 26 years — providing support for homicide victims' families. That’s because Judy is part of a family that lost a loved one to a homicide in the early 1990s.
"At that point we were trying to figure out what do we do with this pain?" Williams said "How do we help our friend who was in so much pain?"
That pain was from the violent death of Shawna Hawk, Williams' goddaughter. Hawk was one of 129 people murdered in Charlotte in 1993. She was raped and strangled to death by a man she thought was a friend, Henry Wallace.
"We were like everyone else during that year, we were watching the numbers go up and weren’t doing anything, and then it knocked on our door," Williams said. "It’s time to answer it and you either answer it and do something about it or you answer it and continue to sit on the couch and watch TV, which is what we were all doing because it hadn’t affected us. And most people are that way — they don’t get involved until it knocks on their door."
Judy’s response to that knock was to start a support group for families as well as candlelight vigils for their loved ones. Mothers of Murdered Offspring coordinates with victims’ families to host those vigils.
Judy still heads support group meetings and takes phone calls from distraught family members. But when she got sick, she had to pull away from leading the candelight vigils, which she sees as one of the main ways she can speak directly to the community.
"I’m hoping that I will be able to get back involved more because that was my platform, where I could say whatever I needed to say, to let people know that killing each other is not the way," Williams said. "We’ve got to find a ways of resolving our differences other than taking a life. At the end of a fight everybody should go home, and that’s not happening. One is going to jail and one is going to the cemetery, and that is a problem."
From where Judy sits, there are several issues in Charlotte leading to this year’s increase in homicides. Guns are too accessible, she says. Parents aren’t in control of their kids. Religion isn’t as important to people as it once was. But she says, it’s also how people view where they live.
"They separated neighbor and hood," Williams said. "I didn’t get that for a long time. Where did hood come from? Then I finally realized people don’t say neighbor no more. It’s about the fact that people are no longer thinking of themselves as part of a community or a part of a neighborhood.
"We need to stop thinking of ourselves and our neighborhoods as hood or ‘hoodish.’ We have to start seeing people as humans beings again."
Williams says people don’t understand the lasting impact firing a gun has, not just for a victim but for the person firing the weapon.
"A person with a gun doesn’t realize that your life is going to change, too," Williams said. "If you have kids, they are going to be visiting you in prison."
Willliams has lost count of the number of vigils she’s held for families. She couldn’t tell you how many families she’s consoled. There are just too many.
She can tell you that she still believes in Charlotte and the people who inhabit it. Her cancer diagnosis has made her stop and think about how people will remember her and what her lasting contribution will be.
"I hope that people will remember that Ms. Judy cared, that I would do whatever I can for you whenever I can do it, no matter what," Williams said. "I hope that they will remember that we all have the ability to love and care for another human being. Charlotte is my hometown. I want people to know that this is still a good city.
"Yeah, we’ve gotten some bad elements in it and people have made some bad decisions, but overall Charlotte is a wonderful place. And my legacy is to help people who want to come here to know that, people who live here to make it better, because we all have a responsibility in wherever we are to make it better. I want to always be a part of the solution and never the problem. And that’s what I was: part of the solution."
As part of the solution, Williams keeps looking forward to better days in Charlotte. And sometimes that means looking back at the past to keep inspiring her to push forward.
She points out her goddaughter would have been 46 this year. She says yes, there is still time and potential for Charlotte to turn this violence around. And yet, she says, she can’t help but wonder how much potential has been lost to the violence in Charlotte. How much potential she wonders, is buried in the ground?