The Fire Down Below

For more than three decades, Eric Vickers has been lighting brushfires, crusading against the racism he sees around him. Now, the civil-rights lawyer and activist finds himself burned.

Robert Vickers heard it on the radio as he was pulling out of his driveway: "The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is dead."

He stopped the car where it was, halfway in the street, and went back inside to tell his wife. On that night, tears flowed in the home of the first black family ever to live on Dalkeith Lane. Claire Vickers put down the green dress she was hemming and reached into her closet for another, a black one. Bracing herself, she went to tell her three teenage sons. Softly, trying to ease the brunt of the words, she said, "The Rev. Martin Luther King is dead."

"We had never cried so hard for someone not in our own family," Claire says.

Claire and Robert Vickers, in a late-'50s photo, with their children Eric, Bobby and Steve. All three kids were born at Peoples Hospital, an all-black hospital in St. Louis.
Claire and Robert Vickers, in a late-'50s photo, with their children Eric, Bobby and Steve. All three kids were born at Peoples Hospital, an all-black hospital in St. Louis.

The oldest of Robert and Claire's sons, 16-year-old Bobby, retreated to his room and closed the door, shutting the world out. Steve, 13, with swollen and weary eyes, told his mother, "I'm glad I cried today so I don't have to cry tomorrow."

But it was consuming rage, not sadness, that 15-year-old Eric felt. The shy, overweight teen walked out his front door and kept going. He focused all his energy on the mental tug-of-war between destructive rage and productive anger. He ran through the list of heroes who had died before their missions were complete: Marcus Garvey, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and, now, King.

"Our hope was being destroyed so quickly," Vickers says. "It was being shot down right before our eyes."

The young man walked and prayed for God to free him from the disillusionment he felt growing inside him. Five miles and two hours later, Eric returned home, quiet and introspective. But deep inside him, a fire had started to burn.

Over the last 33 years, that fire has grown to a blaze that has licked away at racism. At times, it has burned out of control. Today, Eric Vickers finds himself charred and smoking, surrounded by the blackened rubble of his professional and personal lives.

Vickers was born into segregation on Feb. 16, 1953, on the eve of the civil-rights movement. His father was the superintendent of the Venice (Ill.) School District. His mother worked for the federal government. The educated young couple were well aware of racial barriers but fought them wherever they could. In 1953, all black children born at St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis were delivered in the basement, an unacceptable option for Claire. So her three sons were born at Peoples Hospital, an all-black hospital in St. Louis. Her last child, Vickie, was born much later, in 1971, at the desegregated Children's Hospital. "I refused to have any child of mine delivered in that environment," she says of St. Mary's basement. "I would have rather delivered at home with a midwife in my own basement."

The Vickerses had moved to Piggott Avenue in East St. Louis in 1955, to a home in the center of a segregated urban neighborhood, rowdy and alive with children. The fact that the Vickerses owned the first color television on the block made their home a magnet for their kids' friends, especially when The Green Hornet was on. "There would literally be 15 or 20 kids watching," Vickers recalls with his characteristic childlike giggle. "Darnell was my best sidekick, and after every episode, we would go back outside and become the Green Hornet."

Just as quickly, the smile vanishes, and Vickers' eyes begin to fill with tears: "But even back then, there were lots of kids and few fathers," he says. "My father filled that role for so many of my friends. I know when we left, there was a huge void." Many kids made it out. Some didn't, including Vickers' Green Hornet sidekick. "Darnell got in some kind of trouble and did a few years in prison," he says. "When he came out, his mind was all messed up. He's never been the same. I still seem him around, but he's always on and off drugs."

When the schools in East St. Louis started to decline, the Vickerses moved. "I couldn't save the whole neighborhood," Claire says. "I had to make sure my own were going to succeed." Belleville was Robert and Claire's first choice, but no real-estate agent would show them a house there because they were black. The Vickerses started looking in University City after hearing about its open housing policy. It was not nearly open enough. Weary of being steered to the black section of town, north of Olive Boulevard, Claire dropped her agent and started looking on her own. "I wanted to live where I wanted to live," she says proudly. "I found this house on Dalkeith Lane. We were the first black family to ever live on the block."

It was 1967. The image is burned in Eric Vickers' mind: his father, standing in the dark by the front window of their new house, surrounded by moving boxes, a shotgun by his side. The family had wanted to take time to redecorate their new home and buy some furniture. Then someone hurled a burning log through their living-room window and splashed black paint onto the front of the house. Not willing to take another chance on their investment, the Vickerses moved in three weeks early. On the first tense night, 14-year-old Eric stayed close to his father's side. "I don't know why, but I wasn't scared," he says. "I knew whatever happened, my father would make sure we would be OK."

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