Longtime Tucson civil-rights leader Roy L. Cooksey died Aug. 12 after a decade contending with Alzheimer's disease. He was 84.

Cooksey, the son of sharecroppers, was born in Arkansas. His parents moved Cooksey and his sister to Eloy in 1939 to escape the ethnic violence of the South, said one of his seven children, Gwendolyn Cooksey-Haynes.

Cooksey and his wife of 61 years, Malissia Thomas Cooksey, met in Eloy, and that's where they started a family.

It's also where Cooksey's interest in civil rights turned to action after the savage beating of a black youth by two white men.

"That triggered something in my dad," Cooksey-Haynes said.

Cooksey started the Eloy Community Council, a rights group, in 1952, and the Pinal County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1955, according to a 1988 article in the Tucson Citizen. Two years later, he was at the forefront of the fight to integrate Pinal County schools, and in 1959 he was the first black man to work in the Hayden copper mines.

In 1960, Cooksey moved his family to Tucson, where he formed the Afro-American Coordination Committee to calm tensions during a period of civil unrest across the country — and occasionally in Tucson — and mediate with the black community for the Tucson police.

Cooksey, who met Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on several occasions, lamented what he saw as a loss of momentum in the civil-rights movement after King's 1968 assassination.

In the Citizen article, he said: "I and other blacks and minorities have been able to move up in this society, but there are many others like us who haven't been able to. We who have must go back and help.

"Dr. King taught us that discrimination survived because we cooperated with it. King made us decide not to cooperate with it any longer."

Cooksey was a "poverty war worker" in the late 1960s, employed by the South Park Area Council of the Tucson Community for Economic Opportunity. After earning a bachelor of arts degree from St. Mary's College of California, he took a job as supervising investigator for the civil-rights division of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. It was a position he held until he developed Alzheimer's.

"He was a very strong community advocate," said Clarence Boykins, president of the Tucson Black Chamber of Commerce. "He never gave up on the fight. If you were looking for a champion, you looked first to Roy Cooksey. He continually pushed the envelope."

Cooksey and his wife opened the state's first black-owned day-care center on Tucson's south side. He helped form Arizona's first chapter of the Negro American Labor Council, and he was the first black appointed to the Arizona AFL-CIO Civil Rights Committee.

He was one of the Arizona Daily Star's 1981 Jefferson Award recipients for his public service and community leadership. Among his other honors, Cooksey was given the Brotherhood Good Neighbor award in 1963 by the National Council of Christians and Jews, and the Service to Mankind award in 1970 by the Midtown Sertoma Club of Tucson.

Cooksey was state president of the NAACP in the mid-1960s, co-chairman of the Arizona Black Affirmative Action Coalition in the 1970s, president and co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Society in the late 1980s, and vice president of Advocates for Peace and Justice in the 1990s.

He also was a Mason and was a member of the Doberman Coalition, a grass-roots employment-equality group; the Tucson Black Coalition; and the Tucson Committee of Economic Opportunity.

"There were so many things going on, so many things that needed to be changed — you couldn't focus on just one problem to deal with," said fellow civil-rights activist Chuck Ford, a former Tucson vice mayor. "He never backed off problems. If there was a problem, he was there to push it toward a solution. Some people backed off when it got too tough, but that wasn't Roy Cooksey. Roy was there to push it all the way through."

Cooksey was preceded in death by his wife; his eldest son, Roy L. Cooksey Jr.; and his grandson, James Deon Lennox. He is survived by his children, Cooksey-Haynes, Joetta Cooksey-Cooper, Jacqueline Cooksey-Harrison, Cornell S. Cooksey Sr., Cleophus E. Cooksey and William J. Cooksey, plus 18 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

If you go

Friends and family members will celebrate Roy L. Cooksey's life at 10 a.m. Saturday at Trinity Temple C.M.E. Church, 1025 E. 30th St. A viewing is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at Funeraria del Angel South Lawn, 5401 S. Park Ave.

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.