The morning after a gunman killed five people in a Kirkwood City Council meeting, a group of more than 100 assembled in the predominantly black neighborhood of Meacham Park to make sense of the tragedy. Inside a packed classroom in the old Turner Elementary School, the crowd recalled the events leading up to Charles “Cookie” Thornton’s murderous rampage.
In recent years the 52-year-old Thornton had alleged that Kirkwood officials violated his civil rights and levied illegal fines against the asphalt company he operated out of his Meacham Park home. And while few in attendance Friday morning would condone Thornton’s actions, many residents said they sympathized with him.
Ben Gordon, an activist with the Rock Hill-Webster Groves Family Community Center, was perhaps the most outspoken person present, going as far as to call Thornton a “hero.”
“He was a good man. The only problem was he thought he could survive in America against racist politics. And what we have here is an example of what will happen as long as people choose color over people,” said Gordon. “I don’t condone murder, but I tell you now, as long as there is separatism and unequal politics you’ll see more of this. He did what any red-blooded American would do. If you go to Iraq and kill people that this government says is an enemy, then you’re a hero. But if you’re fighting in this country for the rights you are deserved and you’ve been told you are owed, then you are an insurgent. I say he is a hero.”
Michael Moore, a friend of Thornton, said he received a call from him at 2 p.m. Thursday, only hours before the assassin took the lives of two Kirkwood police officers and three city council officials.
“He told me he wanted to thank me for things I’m doing in the neighborhood,” recalled Moore. “He told me he was going to the council meeting last night. I was going to join him, but then I remembered I had to watch my son. If I’d had gone with him to the meeting, I would have stopped Cookie from doing what he did. But just by trying to stop him -- in the confusion -- I believe I would have been shot [by police], too, because black people in this community don’t go to the city council meetings.”
Moore pointed out a long history of racial strife in the community, dating back to 1893 when Kirkwood tried to stop a black vocational school in Meacham Park -- which at that time was not part of the city of Kirkwood -- from relocating to the city. “In 1954 they almost had a race riot because they didn’t want black kids going to Kirkwood schools,” said Moore. Other residents recall that many homes in Meacham Park did not have indoor plumbing until late in the 1970s.
In 1991 Kirkwood annexed Meacham Park, and a few years later the city issued $17 million in tax-increment financing in order to replace half of Meacham Park’s 106 acres with Kirkwood Commons, a retail development at Big Bend and South Lindbergh boulevards that today is home to a Target, a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s.
“In the taking of Meacham Park, Kirkwood has gotten rich off the backs of blacks,” said Moore. “All that money went to Kirkwood. You want to know where the pool is, the community center is? It’s out there in Kirkwood. The only reason Kirkwood annexed Meacham Park was for the check.”
Thornton -- says his friend Randy Norton -- was angry for the neighborhood. “Part of that TIF was supposed to build affordable homes for the residents of Meacham Park. But instead of costing $160,000, those homes are $240,000. People can’t afford them.”
Earlier Friday morning, at Thornton’s home in the 300 block of Attucks, family and friends recalled him as a kind and charitable man, and a great line dancer. “Cookie” was the first word he uttered as an infant, and it remained a lifelong nickname.
“Last thing he told me before he walked out the door was, ‘To God be the glory. I love you and see you later,’” said Thornton’s mother, 83-year-old Annie Bell Thornton. “He’d been going to church since the age and three and was a very religious man.”
Thornton’s mother said her son ran for Kirkwood City Council in the early ’90s and lost, and had constant run-ins with the city ever since. He complained that the city would not issue him work permits for much of the private driveway repair and other asphalt work he did within the city limits. Last year Thornton filed a federal lawsuit against Kirkwood claiming the city had violated his civil rights. Two weeks ago a federal judge rejected his lawsuit. A black three-ring binder on the coffee table in Thornton’s home holds all his legal filings.
A family friend, Charles Rummels, remembered how Thornton and other Meacham Park men who met regularly for breakfast would rent a limousine during the holidays and take children for rides throughout the city. Later the men would give away gloves, coats and hats. “He had my daughter and some of her friends do yard work for him last fall and paid them $100. He was like an uncle figure in the community. And I think he felt he was pushed to the limit.”
Thornton’s brother Arthur said Thornton seemed to reserve most his anger for Kenneth Yost, Kirkwood’s director of public works. “In the beginning it was a civil relationship, but somewhere it turned personal and he felt he abused and attacked. Last few times I talked to Cookie about it, he was sort of obsessive. He felt there was no justice.”