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Kirkwood remembers the dark past, and looks forward to a brighter future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The people of Kirkwood came together Saturday night. On a springlike evening, a large crowd came to pay tribute to five men and one woman who died last year.

Kirkwood police officers William Biggs and Tom Ballman; Council members Connie Karr and Mike Lynch; and the city’s public works director Ken Yost died on Feb. 7, 2008, after they were shot by Charles “Cookie” Thornton. Thornton was well known inside City Hall and throughout Kirkwood as a businessman who tried to help others and as an annoyance who frequently disrupted the city’s business. He was killed by police who responded to a distress call from Biggs just after he had been shot.

Months later, Mayor Mike Swoboda, who was wounded in the assault, died. He had suffered from cancer; his death was related to complications from the gunshot wounds.

Thornton, who was African-American, cited race discrimination as a cause of his ongoing troubles with the city. All of his victims were white. In the year since the shootings, many people have worked to prevent an upheaval that could have further polarized Kirkwood along racial lines.

The crowd standing outside Kirkwood City Hall Saturday night numbered more than 2,000. Unlike a similar gathering a year ago, the atmosphere was relaxed. People smiled and made small talk as they waited for the program to begin. Julie and Bob Mosby of Kirkwood came with their 15-year-old son Clayton “to be with the community,” Julie Mosby said. “For unity.”

The Mosbys arrived with about 100 people who had met first at Kirkwood United Methodist Church. The group made the four-block walk from their church to City Hall with candles already lit. Other nearby congregations also gathered and walked together to the ceremony. 

Sandy Chambers, a former Kirkwood resident who now lives in Fenton, said she had come for “healing.”

“This community still needs to come together,” Chambers said. “We still need to learn more about each other.”

The brief Remembrance Ceremony began with a procession of surviving family members, city council members, city employees and members of the Kirkwood Ministerial Alliance.

Among those who came from outside Kirkwood were law enforcement officers, who represented many area departments including Maplewood, University City, Crestwood, Olivette, Maries County, St. Louis County and the Missouri Highway Patrol.

The Community Gospel Choir opened with a stirring anthem and the Rev. Renee Johnson, of St. Matthew CME Church, followed with a prayer. Then Kirkwood Mayor Art McDonnell spoke of the dark night a year ago when the city was changed forever. After brief remarks, McDonnell began to call out the names of those who were killed, as current council members lit a candle for each person.

Everyone in the crowd also held a candle, and strangers turned one to another and lit their candles from each other.

The program ended with the Rev. David Holyan of the First Presbyterian Church offering a prayer based on the 23rd Psalm and a final song by the Gospel Choir.

Then, just as simply as it had begun, the ceremony came to a close and the solemn crowd dispersed as church bells tolled in the distance.

Peacemaking in Meacham Park

Minutes later, about a mile and a half away, a service of a completely different sort was about to begin. At Douglas Memorial Church of God in Christ, about 50 people were gathered. They had come to pay tribute not only to the city officials who were killed, but to show support for the family of the killer.

The church’s pastor, Rev. Larry Addison, thanked God for keeping the community together and offered prayers for Annie Bell Thornton, mother of Charles Thornton. Addison said she, too, has suffered a great loss.

Others who also spoke warmly to Thornton family members included Franklin McCallie, retired principal of Kirkwood High School, and Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association; community activist Zaki Baruti and Pastor Ed Plants of Geyer Road Baptist Church.

The service had the tone of an old-time revival, with exuberant sprituals and expressive prayers.

The evening took a surprise turn when Addison introduced one unassuming visitor. Seated in a pew and wearing civilian clothes was Kirkwood Police Chief Jack Plummer. The chief had been sitting quietly with his wife, Cindy, when Addison introduced him and went to the chief and wrapped him up in an emotional embrace.

Plummer said later that he had come to the Meacham Park gathering because “I need to be here. It’s my task to serve all of Kirkwood. This is where I want to be.” 

A lesson from the children 

Earlier Saturday, another group of Kirkwood residents got a lesson from school children about how they should move forward. And if the grownups will listen to the children, some adults say, progress might be possible.

Several young people — students from Kirkwood schools — had the chance to tell older people what they thought at a meeting of the Community for Understanding and Healing. The group was formed last year after the shooting rampage.

The meeting featured the winners of an essay contest that asked: “What would a prejudice-free, highly respectful community look like?” The contest had nine winners, three each from elementary, middle and high school. More than 300 students submitted essays.

Robinson School fifth-grader Abby Christensen answered the question by borrowing from the folk song, “This Land is Your Land.” The 11-year-old went on to write that “this land was made for everyone — blacks, whites, women, men, elderly, adults, children and handicapped.”

In her first-place essay for the elementary school level, Abby wrote that she would like to see a community with more diversity on the City Council and more jobs for people with mental challenges.

“Some day soon, if we keep fighting for what is right, everyone will be treated equally and Dr. King’s dream will be complete,” she told the crowd.

Pastor Scott Stearman of Kirkwood Baptist Church welcomed the audience and said that now is the time to look forward. After a year of reflection and discussion about the past, Stearman said it’s time to look “through the eyes of young people” toward a brighter future.

About 150 people attended the gathering at Kirkwood Baptist Church. The event began with the premiere of the “Canticle of Peace,” by Joseph M. Martin. The choral piece was commissioned by the Music Ministry of Kirkwood United Methodist Church and performed by the church’s Chancel Choir in memory of the victims of the shootings at Kirkwood City Hall.

Art McDonnell was elected mayor last year to replace Swoboda. He said Saturday morning that one reason Kirkwood did not allow the shootings to turn people against one another was because of the quick response by the city’s clergy members -- black and white -- and others.

“We were not going to let this situation turn into something bad,” McDonnell said.

Organizers of the Community for Healing and Understanding agreed. Ron Hodges, the group’s chair, explained that their effort has focused on educating people about how others experience life and how to look at certain situations from other points of view.

“We have looked at the ‘race thing’ and white privilege. Now we are going to look forward to see what we can do next,” Hodges said.

One suggestion came from a member of the audience who said the ideas offered in the students’ essays should be distributed around town, from yard signs to grocery carts.

Such messages could include the one offered by 13-year-old Michelle Dodson, who won first place among middle schoolers for her essay, “A Single Light.” Michelle attends Nipher Middle School. She described darkness as prejudice, hate and disrespect. Light, she said, can overcome the darkness and help people avoid arguments if citizens would understand that opinions are unique and that “no one should cause the opinion holders to suffer and live in fear because of their belief.”

“Why are we uncomfortable with diversity?” she asked.

Grace Evans, 16, of Kirkwood High School, seemed to answer that question in her first-place, high school essay. “Prejudice is born in fear of the unknown,” she wrote.

With “each of us, doing the best we can to work through our own personal issues, we can help the next generation live in a highly respectful, prejudice-free community.”

Outreach specialist Linda Lockhart has been telling stories for most of her life. A graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, she has worked at several newspapers around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, night city editor, wire editor, Metro Section editor and editorial writer. She served the St. Louis Beacon as analyst for the Public Insight Network, a product of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media that helps connect journalists with news sources. She continues using the PIN to help inform the news content of St. Louis Public Radio. She is a St. Louis native and lives in Kirkwood.