On this Martin Luther King Day, my community in Middletown, CT continues to reel from the death of Quentin “Q” Williams 11 days ago in a car accident as he drove home from the inaugural ball hours after being sworn in for his third term as our state representative. He was as tireless in his pursuit of social justice as he was magnetic in the personal warmth he shared in any context, public or private, and I am just one among many seeking to process the loss on both of these levels. This important holiday ostensibly commemorates Dr. King’s profound impact, yet is embedded with the reality of his premature and unfair departure, and I keep coming back to that complicated emotional and philosophical stew in reflecting on Q.
There are a number of eerie if comparatively superficial similarities between Q and Dr. King – faith-driven Black men who perished at the age of 39. For me these similarities only serve to add a layer of pathos to the more significant similarity – namely the void left by the sudden losses of charismatic, principled, and potent men on whom many depended as sources of inspiration, guidance, and leadership.
As I began trying to make sense of what losing Q would mean for my community (beyond the still-surreal personal loss), the first parallel that came to mind was not Dr. King (whose death predated my birth and thus for me has always been an historical event rather than one I had to process as it was happening), but rather Paul Wellstone. For those less familiar with Wellstone, he was a progressive U.S. Senator from Minnesota who died (along with his wife, daughter, and several staffers) 20 years ago in a plane crash en route to a funeral less than two weeks prior to what likely would have been his re-election. For months after, I couldn’t shake the idea that this was a form of cosmic terrorism, for lack of a better term. It wasn’t that I literally suspected the cause of death to be anything more insidious than tremendously bad luck. Rather, it simply felt as if taking (on the part of whatever entity your belief system identifies as a “taker” here) someone with this much proven capacity to do good for others was a particularly cruel rebuke to those of us idealistic enough to believe in that possibility.
Of course there’s no logic to whose paths are or aren’t caught in the crosshairs of random tragedy, and that randomness is perhaps why I thought of Sen. Wellstone initially, by contrast to the far from random conditions of Dr. King’s assassination. Yet with all three of these men there was a sense that their presence on this earth was a direct source of support for humanity itself.
No leader, whether clergy, politician, community activist, or parent, can single-handedly fix racism or warmongering or environmental degradation or really anything of substance, but there is comfort in knowing that someone truly devoted to fostering a better world has a platform for pursuing that betterment and showing the rest of us the way. To lose that comfort at the very moment when we’re already gutted by losing that person is particularly challenging.
There are no silver linings here, but I keep reminding myself that the civil rights movement did not fizzle when Dr. King was taken and the vitality and belief that fueled Q’s work do not fizzle now, even if those of us left might need a moment to gather ourselves. As Lieutenant Governor Byszewicz compellingly noted in a recent op-Ed for the Hartford Courant, Q demonstrated how to manifest the principles that guided his life and work (caring, compassion, equity, and so on). He demonstrated this as a legislator, he demonstrated this one-on-one as a caring human, and he demonstrated this in the deftness with which he navigated the often murky terrain of balancing these two responsibilities, something underscored by the love and respect pouring out even from people with whom he butted heads over specific legislative stances and priorities.
Losing a leader is hard, and losing a leader on whose moral compass we’ve come to depend for our own orientation is especially hard, particularly given the layers of human loss (in this case Q’s wife, his mother, his friends). Losing Dr. King remains a source of grief for so many of us and the pain of losing Q will never fully heal, and yet each of us can do our part to carry the torch, following the maps they have caringly laid out for us. This holiday is in that sense a perfect time to affirm that while we have lost a great man and an emblem of our shared conscience we haven’t lost the conscience itself. Neither malevolence nor bad luck can take that away.