Manhattan Beach resident recalls fears, redemption following home firebombing
by Malissia Clinton
In 1947,my grandparents Roy and Malissia Cooksey got married in Eloy, Arizona. The legacy of Jim Crow was alive and well and times were tough for a young Black couple with big dreams.
My grandfather, the son of Arkansas sharecroppers, dreamed of opportunities beyond picking cotton. My grandmother dreamed of going to college at Prairie View A&M.
She never made it past high school But what they accomplished still blows my mind. My grandparents opened Arizona’s first Black-owned day-care center and ran it for nearly four decades. My grandfather helped form the state’s first chapter of the NAACP and he was its president during the years when membership alone meant putting your life at risk. They knew Dr. King and Malcolm X and they spent their lives fighting for equal rights.
I absolutely worshiped my grandparents.
Every Christmas I’d buy my grandmother a candle with a picture of a white Jesus on it. It was the only thing I could afford from Smitty’s Grocery Store at the corner of Budlong and 106th in South Central where I lived. At 10 years old, I’d hear talk of them being “Civil rights activists,” but to be honest, those words didn’t mean much to me. What I remember was they owned a house in the desert on an acre of land and they had a swimming pool. They were rich.
I didn’t know that activism in the ‘50s and ‘60s meant upsetting people and having the unimaginable happen. People planted bombs in their car and threw bricks at their windows. They tried to run them off the roadway. With hate in their voices they’d routinely called my grandparents’ house and threatened their lives and the lives of their children. Then one morning while they were away at work, someone tried to fulfill that promise. They walked up to their house in broad daylight, set fire to it, and burned it down.
My grandparents never said a word about it when I was growing up. You see they believed life was for living, not reliving. So with dignity and grace, they rebuilt that home and they continued living. They realized hate was powerful and ugly and small. But they believed they could defeat it if they kept fighting with purpose.
I am the daughter of their middle daughter. Life for me was no storybook. My mother had me when she was 17. She married my father under duress; for him it was get married or stare into the barrel of my grandfather’s shotgun and for her it was that or abort me. They loved me and my brother but they fought bitterly and neither was prepared to raise children. Drugs were prominently featured in my childhood. My father dealt them; my mother consumed them. Then they’d fight. Repeat, repeat, repeat. And in this endless cycle I wondered: What if my life could be different? What if I could live like my grandparents? I was repelled by the violence, unpaid bills, and uncertainty. I wanted so much more.
In the 9th grade I made straight A’s ….entirely by mistake. I didn’t meant to – it just happened. And my high school gave me a book scholarship. Wait ….what?! They give you things when you get good grades? What if I did that all four years? So I graduated and went to college and then to law school. In part to fulfill the civil rights dream of my grandfather, who rose to become a supervisor in the Arizona attorney general’s office civil rights division, but never got his law degree. I was a first generation college graduate and I was proud to make them proud.
When I got married, my husband and I set out to lead a life in their image. After all, I was named after my grandmother who was named after her grandmother. And my husband shared my grandfather’s initials. I fell in love with him because he reminded me so much of my grandfather. He has big hands like my grandfather and he’d built a house for his mom just like my grandad built the house with the swimming pool for my grandmother. A man who knew how to put up sheet rock was a man I wanted to have little chocolate babies with.
We have three kids – each three grade years apart. And we are successful. I am a lawyer, Ron is a pharmacist. We moved to beautiful Manhattan Beach in the early 2000s. It’s picturesque and clean. It has AYSO and basketball and football. Legions of kids and lots of parks and field and smiling faces. We noticed, for sure, there weren’t many black folks. In fact, I remember driving home from work one day and I spied a Black woman walking with three kids. I was determined to meet them so I drove up quickly and lowered my window to yell out a greeting: “Oh hi um… Rachel, Roi, Michai…mom!” It was my family and I didn’t even know it! So, for sure, we noticed there weren’t that many Blacks, but we loved our life in Manhattan Beach, and except for an isolated incident here or there, we felt safe and welcome.
Then, on a typical Tuesday morning in 2015, my cell phone rang at 5 a.m. I had just landed in Washington, D.C. for a business trip, late the night before and I was in a deep sleep. It was my husband and it was 2 a.m. back in LA. He said “Honey, someone set the house on fire.”
Yea — Somebody filled a tire with gasoline, lit it with a match and chucked it at our front door. The sound of the breaking glass startled Ronald awake and he woke up our three kids, hustled up the dog, and escaped from the house through the garage. He used the garden hose to fight the flame until firefighters arrived. Later, he said, the thing he remembers most is how eerily quiet it was. There were as many as 5 fire trucks and even more police cars, but not a single neighbor was outside.
As he stood there, a fireman approached him and said, “You seem calm.” He replied, “Sir I have my three kids staring at me right now. I have to stay calm if I want them to be calm.”
I wasn’t so calm, at least not inside. I was in a daze, not quite comprehending who I was after the fire, versus who I was before.
I thought: So does this mean my kids need a police escort to school tomorrow? Is it okay to go on solo runs in the mornings? Where is that can of mace?
I thought of my brother James Deon who urged me to move to the community when I hesitated years before because I wasn’t certain we could get along – me with the fancy degrees. D said “Missy, don’t worry. Your kids are growing up in a new day. It won’t be like what happened to grandma and grandpa.”
I thought about how that brother, my only brother, my only sibling, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Mesa Arizona in 2006. I cried every single day for a year. That said, the fire really confirmed a sense of foreboding and despair in me, that I was right and he was wrong. Things hadn’t really changed at all and we weren’t ever going to get along. And almost as if to confirm that realization, I called Donna, head of security at my company, who knows folks in the Manhattan Beach Fire Department. and asked her to follow-up for more information. She showed me the written response she got back and it said,in all caps, the fire was not arson. It was not a firebombing. It was not a hate crime. Ron got called in to take a polygraph because, well he just seemed too dang calm.
All this was beyond frustrating. It was humiliating for a place we’d called home for over a decade. And it made us angry. We felt unwanted, so we decide to move. Sure, in the back of our minds we knew leaving meant giving in to hate. But keeping our kids safe came first. So if we were being told to go, we’d go.
And maybe we would have moved away. But over the next few hours and days the unexpected happened.
They say, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. We’ll I’d like to revise that to “Except for the fury of a bunch of book club women!” In the wee hours of the following morning I sent my book club an email asking for their help and telling them we were considering moving.
Their response was swift and pointed. I can summarize it in four words: You ain’t going nowhere. They immediately reached out to their contacts who reached out to theirs and we starting hearing from people. First, we got 10 emails. Then 20, then 50. They just kept coming. People expressed anger, and sadness, and disbelief and offered to help. I’d cancelled my trip and was headed home. And as the plane taxied from the runway I couldn’t keep up with the emails. When I arrived at LAX I got a call from my husband to say there were news trucks outside his pharmacy and at our home. Wait, what’s happening. Eight women did this!
I arrived at the local hotel where we were staying in four single rooms with the dog and my mother, who had jumped on a plane and flew to our aid. The outpouring continued. Between us, we received no less than 500 emails and texts. It felt like we were hearing from every single member of the community. The greater community: co-workers and high school classmates, friends from college and customers of the pharmacy. Black and white and brown and just plain folks who cared. Plants and cookies and brownies and flowers and food appeared in the hotel lobby. Girl Scout troops dropped off gift baskets. Meal trains were created. An entrepreneur named Peter Pham set up a crowdfunding campaign and over 300 people gave money for a reward. The fund quickly swelled to nearly $35,000. The police chief, a petite dynamo of a woman and the fire captain, a big bear of a man, arrived in the hotel lobby and said: let’s do a do over.
This is all within 48 hours of the fire.
Another dear friend, Michelle, sent me a text. It said I’m thinking of organizing a vigil on Friday — will you come? We honestly wanted to say “no”. But the outpouring was speaking to us. It was telling us to slow down and listen.
So we said yes and just three days after the fire, we arrived at the local town square tired and dazed. And exactly at 5 p.m., magic happened. Dozens upon dozens of people starting pouring into the square from every entry point. In a matter of minutes we were surrounded by over 700 people. It was kind of Biblical. It felt like angels had been dispatched to comfort us. The love was palpable. I love hugs and there were lots of them to go around. People kept hugging us and crying for us and pleading with us to stay. They promised the fire was not of the community. It was not set by them and it did not represent them. And it struck me: God sent these people to restore my faith. Because they represented the promise my brother spoke of. The better tomorrow. Maybe he was right after all and I was wrong. Maybe we needed to stay and rebuild.
I didn’t wake up today and realize I was Black. But in many respects my kids did in fact wake up to their Blackness the day after that fire. They knew their skin color was Black of course, but to them “Black” was really nothing more than a different crayon in the crayon box – all equal in every way. After all, all they’ve ever really known is a Black president. And while their loss of innocence does still sadden me, in a way I thank God for it because ….well… because… I need my boys to outlive me. And I need my daughter to have the chance to marry a man like her father, just like I married a man like my grandfather. So my kids need to know racism is alive and well and how to combat it. But I also hope my kids have added something even more life preserving to their tool kit: the knowledge that in the middle of every storm they’ll find the true power of God. And that sometimes he lets the terrible happen to us — the collective us — to give us an opportunity to do something extraordinary.
My grandparents Roy and Malissia Cookey understood that and they fought for over 60 years to put me right here in front of you at this appointed time. That’s their triumph over tragedy. And maybe if you and I keep getting up, dusting off and fighting for that better tomorrow… Today …We’ll make history, too.
by Kevin Cody
Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com