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.

And, unlike his days with Carl Officer, during which Vickers was always in the background behind the media-magnet mayor, Vickers was the frontman this time. "Eric can articulate issues better than anyone I have ever met," Hasan says. "He can mobilize people." Vickers helped mobilize the disparate parts of the black community, bringing together organizations ranging from the NAACP to the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, Better Family Life Inc. , the Urban League and the Universal African Peoples Organization. On a national level, Sharpton and the National Action Network signed on.

Maintaining order wasn't easy. "When you have people who are used to fighting and doing things their own way, it can be hard to hold them together and keep them focused," Vickers says. "But I was so spiritually grounded that whenever anything came up or an ego was on the scene, I pushed through it not with force but with gentleness. I was constantly saying, 'Look at the goal -- this is where we are going. We can only get there if we're together.'"

S. Lee Kling, chairman of the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission, was sitting in his office on the afternoon of July 11, 1999, when he heard that a group of black activists were planning to shut down I-70 during rush hour. "That was the first I had heard about it, and my gut told me it was going to be one of those kind of days," says Kling. "Oh, he had our attention. All we could do at that point is make sure we had enough police officers out there to make it safe. The talking would have to come later."

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.

Vickers recalls the protest as others would recall the Selma march. "There was so much energy," he says. "We knew we were changing our lives and the lives of others. We were making history and felt like we all were a part of something greater." After the 45-minute shutdown, the negotiations began, with Vickers across the table from the powers that be: Kling and other MoDOT reps, the contractors, even then-Gov. Mel Carnahan's delegates. Negotiators met for hours, trying to hash out a deal that would meet everyone's goals. "Eric is an amazing negotiator," Kling says. "I found him very reasonable. If we told him, 'No, that is impossible,' he was very calm and understanding. Then he would state his position. There were never any real tense moments. Eric knew what he wanted, and he wasn't going to leave until he got whatever he could."

The agreement the negotiators reached included an expedited study on minority participation in highway contracts, a 10 percent set-aside of construction contracts for minority firms and 25 percent of construction jobs for minorities, and, most substantial, the opening of a center to train minority workers. Today the technical center, located in Wellston, is graduating 150 students every six months, and MoDOT has started a similar program in Kansas City. "I don't think it was necessarily a problem of racism," Kling says. "I think it was one of not having due diligence in ensuring minorities were a part of the process. It wasn't intentional. Eric Vickers brought it to our attention. We would not have noticed the problem without him."

Vickers says he was busy "litigating, agitating and negotiating." Meanwhile, his clients were complaining.

He was failing to return their calls, sometimes for years. Between 1991 and 1996, Vickers' clients began agitating on their own, because he wasn't following through on their cases. The complaints flew. After a two-year investigation, the Missouri Supreme Court's disciplinary counsel moved to suspend his license, basing the suspension on 16 complaints filed by six different clients, most of them black. He was charged with, among other things, five counts of neglect, six counts of inadequate client communication, three counts of incompetence and six counts of failure to respond to disciplinary subpoena.

For instance, Vickers was missing in action when clients Ernest and Delores Washington needed him on their case against the city of St. Louis after police officers recklessly caused gunshot damage to their home. The city offered to settle for $3,762, and Vickers advised them to decline the offer, calling it too low. He made no further effort on their case and didn't tell them he believed there was no possibility of further recovery. For years, the Washingtons didn't get any return calls from Vickers, and, in the end, they got no money from their lawsuit. Vickers' excuse? "I got caught up in everything I was doing," he says. "There is no excuse. On this particular case, I dropped the ball."

Then there was the verbal tangle with his client Raphael Williams. In 1994, Williams, a dentist, hired Vickers to sue Delta Dental Plan of Missouri. "He believed the insurance company was discriminatory in the manner in which it handled his claims," Vickers says. "It was a really hard case to prove, one of those Rambo cases, but I believed in it and took it anyway." The attorney-client relationship soured, resulting in a string of street threats. Vickers says Williams, understandably frustrated with his case and upset about the facts about him that came out during his deposition, came to Vickers' office and threatened him. "A lot of the cases I took, including this one, were from people who were fighters themselves and who are used to fighting; that's why they were looking for a lawyer who could fight," Vickers says. Williams fought back. He got in Vickers face, reached for his throat and told Vickers that he was from the streets of St. Louis and could take care of Vickers if he didn't do something. Vickers countered with his own posturing. "I told him I was from East St. Louis and I knew people, too," he says. "I didn't want him to think he could even go there with me." A little sheepishly, Vickers adds, "I regret I handled it like that -- it was really more of a macho thing than a real threat."

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