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Commentary: Kirkwood's journey has been a deeply personal journey for one reporter

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Writing about Kirkwood after the City Hall shootings has been intensely personal. My wife and I grew up in Kirkwood, live there now and have lived there a majority of our lives.

People I've interviewed for this and previous stories are friends. David Holley, the principal at Kirkwood High School until recently, was on my Khoury League team.  First his dad was coach, then mine. We'd always lose to another team whose pitcher, the older brother of Charles "Cookie" Thornton, pitched the ball about twice as hard as I. (Click here to read the story about the fifth anniversary of the shooting in Kirkwood.)

Holley's precedessor as principal, Franklin S. McCallie, is the reason we came back to Kirkwood.  He was the principal when all four of my children graduated. He and his wife Tresa have been to their weddings.

I knew from long, personal conversations with McCallie of his deep belief in civil rights and his personal frustration at having been unable, over months of mediation, to bring together his friend Cookie Thornton and city officials. He always tells me that this could and should have been solved. I tell him I doubt it.

As for Holley, I saw the tears in David's eyes two years ago when he told me how proud he was that African-American graduation rates had met and exceeded white graduation rates and that an increasing number of black students were taking AP tests.

I played volleyball with Mayor Mike Swoboda, who died months after being shot by Thornton.  I knew how hard Councilwoman Connie Karr had worked to bring together City Hall and Meacham Park before that night when Thornton gunned her down. John Hessel, the city attorney who escaped Thornton by throwing chairs at him, is a lawyer who advised me and others in the Post-Dispatch newsroom. Mike Gibbons, who once had represented Thornton, coached my son's soccer team. The Ward brothers, Wallace and Paul, had become good acquaintances from conversations at school events. They told me how angry Thornton had become when he didn't get the demolition contracts for the new mall built on the western edge of Meacham Park.

So, yes, this is intensely personal.  Moreover, I have spent much of my professional career writing about civil rights.  So when Thornton assaulted City Hall, I had to write about it.  This was my town, my friends, my subject, my passion.

Looking back from five years away, Kirkwood's reaction was remarkable.

In the months after the shootings, hundreds of citizens filled churches at a series of community meetings to talk about what had happened, to discuss race in Kirkwood and to look for ways to eliminate the isolation of Meacham Park.

Some residents resented the suggestion that Kirkwood's segregated racial history and Meacham Park's isolation had anything to do with Cookie Thornton's rage. There was no excusing his murderous assault. He didn't kill because of race but because he was in desperate personal and financial straits, they said.

Some chose to focus on the victims. First Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood, which saw more than its share of funerals of the dead officials, helped other communities torn by gun violence. The Rev. David Holyan, pastor at First Presbyterian, was part of a response team after the shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Others took on the race issue more dircectly. The Rev. David Bennett at Kirkwood United Methodist, opened his church for the Thornton funeral. That's the same church where my wife and I married.  Later Bennett was deeply involved in the Justice Department mediation efforts. Meanwhile, at First Baptist, the Rev. Scott Stearman hosted reconciliation meetings and Meacham Park gatherings. His talented wife, Cecelia, was the inspirational force for a gospel choir reaching across racial lines.

Stearman and his congregation drew closer to the Harrison Avenue Missionary Baptist church where the Rev. Jeffrey Croft is minister. After the City Hall killings, Stearman and Croft held joint Bible study classes that explored ways the Bible had been misused to justify segregation. The two congregations also began meeting together from time to time to worship together and First Baptist helped Missionary Baptist through its building renovation.

The Community for Understanding and Hope, formed out of the community
meetings, sponsored book discussions, ice cream socials, and dinner
between white and black residents. In the summer of 2011, CFUH sponsored a trip to civil rights sites in Memphis. Cecelia Stearman, the McCallies, Ron and Genevieve Hodges, Bill and Margaret Bommarito were among the 40 who signed on for the bus trip to the National Civil Rights Museum and the Burkle Estate, a stop on the Underground Railroad now known as Slave Haven. I did, too.

Hearing about the brutality of the Middle Passage and seeing the hotel room where the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated made real those events mostly read in newspapers and textbooks.  But the most important part of the trip was that black and white residents, who didn't know each other before the trip, heard each others' life stories over great barbecue and while strolling down Beale Street.

Is there more understanding and hope now than five years ago? Yes. Is Meacham Park less isolated? It is, by all accounts. But problems and misunderstandings linger. No progress has been made increasing the tiny number of black teachers in the Kirkwood schools and little progress on the police department. The question is whether the increased understanding can bridge those lingering roadblocks to a more hopeful community.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.