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Kirkwood Debates Role of Race in Shootings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Stock story lines about loners and psychopaths fail to explain Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton’s murderous assault this winter at the Kirkwood City Hall — an attack that killed two police officers and three city officials and gravely wounded the mayor, my friend.

Nor do stock story lines about race explain how evil found a home in our idyllic little railroad town turned suburb, where some people feel comfortable leaving their doors unlocked.

Many white residents want desperately to believe this isn’t about race and react angrily to comments that Thornton was a “hero” who was “going to war” against racism. Many residents of Thornton’s historically black neighborhood of Meacham Park also recoil from these statements, yet they can’t help but see Thornton’s life and death through a racial lens.

Four decades after the Civil Rights Movement, at a moment when a black man could be elected president, feelings of racial mistrust still smolder just off the Main Streets of our prosperous towns and suburbs.

The full story is complicated. In some ways race has nothing to do with it. Kirkwood officials offered to cancel thousands of dollars of fines that Thornton owed on more than 100 ordinance violations for parking his construction vehicles on residential lots. Black and white friends and Thornton’s successful wife, a school principal, urged him to settle.

Yet, from the point of view of many residents of Meacham Park — a sometimes stepchild hard by the interstate on the edge of Kirkwood — it is impossible to separate Thornton’s story from the racial oppression and separation they feel.

Thornton was civic leader

At an earlier time, Thornton would have seemed the least likely antagonist in this racial drama. Thornton’s mother called him “Cookie” because he was so sweet.  Kirkwood residents, white and black, remember his broad smile, his embrace and his greeting: “Praise the Lord.” Even a few weeks before the murders, Thornton would greet friends with his happy-go-lucky attitude and say everything was “FAN-tastic.”

Few African-Americans in Kirkwood had so many white friends. He had been a popular track star at Kirkwood High School. In the 1990s, he served on half a dozen civic boards and tutored third and fourth graders at Tillman Elementary School, the mostly white elementary school I attended 50 years ago when there was just one black student. Thornton ran unsuccessfully for the city council. I voted for him.

In the 1990s, when some Meacham Park residents worried about being annexed by Kirkwood, Thornton favored annexation. When some questioned Kirkwood’s redevelopment plan that replaced homes with Wal-Mart and Target stores, Thornton strongly supported it.

Ironically, these integrationist moves backfired. The annexation led to stronger code enforcement and the beginning of his disputes with Kirkwood. Thornton told friends and relatives he also was bitter about the redevelopment plan because he didn’t receive the big, minority set asides on demolition contracts that he thought he had been promised.

McCallie Tries To Help

Friends tried to help Thornton. In early 2003, retired Kirkwood High School principal Franklin McCallie spent five months negotiating between his friend and city officials.  McCallie had known Thornton for years, having attended his marriage to Maureen. McCallie also has devoted his life to racial justice after seeing racism up close in his boyhood home of Chattanooga, where his family runs an elite private school. Three loose-leaf binders attest to McCallie’s mediation effort. But by May, 2003, he admitted he had failed. The city had agreed to waive fines of tens of thousands of dollars, but Thornton said he couldn’t compromise his principles.

Later, McCallie heard Thornton attack the city council again, hee-hawing for three minutes in what he called “jackass-ese.” McCallie rose to say how disappointed he was with his friend’s behavior. Thornton still embraced him after the meeting.

Paul Ward's perspective 

A councilman on the receiving end of Thornton’s city council tirades was Paul Ward, the second African-American to sit on the council, which never has had a resident of Meacham Park. Ward sees a parallel between Thornton and Kevin Johnson, the Meacham Park resident recently sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of another white Kirkwood policeman, Sgt. William McEntee.

“The two men believed they had no recourse.” Ward said. “Their pain was greater than their respect for life.”

Ward and his brother Wallace, who served on the Kirkwood Board of Education, tried to help Thornton navigate the paperwork required of a subcontractor on the Meacham Park demolition jobs. Still, Thornton thought he was shorted on contracts, Wallace Ward recalls. “I told him to look at his contracts as found money,” Ward said. “But he couldn’t. He saw it as race, even though it wasn’t.”

By 2003, Thornton had dropped out of civic groups. He also was losing subcontractor jobs and had filed for bankruptcy. He was signing his letters “A free man” and railing about Kirkwood’s “plantation mentality” and “slave taxes.”

Thornton told friends that a First Amendment suit he had filed without a lawyer would vindicate him and win millions. On Jan. 28, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry ruled Kirkwood could remove him from meetings when he engaged in “virulent, personal attacks.” Joe Cole, a Meacham Park leader, had dinner with Thornton after the decision. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he found a man defeated. “Everybody said he lost his brain. No, hate got into him. He couldn't stop the hate.”

Painful Meacham Park Meeting 

At noon on the day after the murders, as hundreds of people from Kirkwood’s mostly white neighborhoods jammed into the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, about 100 people crammed into a room in the old Turner School in Meacham Park where black students once attended segregated classrooms.

Most news accounts of the meeting featured a quote from Ben Gordon of nearby Webster Groves, who called Thornton “a hero” for standing up to racism.  Few mentioned that after applause for Gordon, the Rev. Miguel Brinkley, pastor of the Kirkwood Church of God, pointedly disagreed. Brinkley, sporting a Tiger Woods cap, said Thornton’s actions “were not the way God says things should be handled.”

The two-hour meeting was filled with such expressions of pain that it seemed impossible this was part of a place and time when a black man might be president. Residents complained, claiming that police have one set of rules for Meacham Park and another for the rest of Kirkwood. White youths who venture into the neighborhood to see friends are suspected of buying drugs. Complaints to the city’s human rights commission go nowhere. The police chief’s well-intentioned attempt to reach out to Meacham Park has faltered. The redevelopment of Meacham Park was a land grab, some said, forgetting that Thornton had been one of its strongest proponents.

The Sunday after the shooting the newspaper headlines talked about moving on, the healing process and the quick remodeling of the City Council chamber. City officials ordered a new coat of green paint to remind residents that this is a town of trees. McCallie thinks it’s more important to come together than to move on. He knows there is no justifying Thornton’s murders. He also knows that there is no ignoring the racial divisions that persist just beyond the comfortable, tree-lined streets.

The funerals are over now. Thornton’s widow chose Kirkwood United Methodist Church in the center of town for his service to make the point that Thornton’s hometown was the greater Kirkwood community. The church opened its doors only days after burying Thornton’s victims. Mourners filled the church and spilled out the door. When McCallie said he hoped the entire city would work together “to make sure this never happen again,” the congregation, black and white, rose in spontaneous applause.

Citizen groups have begun meeting, some in Meacham Park and some in the broader community, to promote community healing. Mayor Mike Swoboda is healing too. Last Christmas Eve, Mike performed us a good turn. Our daughter-in-law from out-of-town had gotten lost jogging. She waved down a passing motorist for directions. The motorist was Mike, hurrying to the grocery store.  “Get in I’ll take you home,” he said. “I know everyone in Kirkwood. I’m the mayor.” 

We wrote a short thank you letter to the Webster-Kirkwood Times about how this only could happen in Kirkwood. We never imagined Feb. 7 could happen here.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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