UPDATED at 11:30 a.m. Saturday with information on survivors
ST. LOUIS • When veteran attorney and activist Eric Vickers joined the prominent law firm Bryan Cave in 1981, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
Then it hit him: “I was working for the wrong side,” he told the Post-Dispatch in 1999.
Leaving in his wake a long legacy of fighting injustice, Mr. Vickers, of St. Louis, died of pancreatic cancer on Friday (April 13, 2018) at the age of 65.
Virvus Jones, former St. Louis comptroller, knew Mr. Vickers for more than 50 years. Jones said Mr. Vickers was an “activist-lawyer,” modeling himself after noted civil rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, who helped train future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“Officials didn’t like to see Eric coming, because he was demanding,” Jones said. “He kept you honest and reminded you why you were there, to serve the people.
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, knew Mr. Vickers for more than 20 years. He once served as her chief of staff at the Missouri Capitol.
“Eric and I fought alongside each other for minority inclusion and we won a lot of battles,” she told the Post-Dispatch. “He was my mentor. He educated me, he encouraged me. And he challenged me.”
Mr. Vickers’ activism was motivated by his childhood experiences moving from his birth city of East St. Louis to the suburb of University City, Jones said.
“He used to tell me how he developed his activism from looking at the disparity,” he said. “It motivated him to level the playing field, and that became his life’s mission.”
It was in University City that Mr. Vickers first learned the power of protest, when he and dozens of other black teenagers organized a sit-down protest at University City High School, urging the school to hire more black teachers and counselors and to buy more books about African-Americans.
When the school reopened several days later, it had a black teacher, a counselor and several books about blacks, Mr. Vickers told the Post-Dispatch when the paper profiled him in 1999.
“It was transforming,” he said. “You realize how effective you can be when you take a stand.”
After graduating with a political science degree from Washington University in 1975, he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and received a master’s degree in urban studies the following year. He received a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1981, teaching at the university during his last year there.
Mr. Vickers founded his own law firm with two other lawyers in 1983 after leaving Bryan Cave. Out on his own, he specialized in racial discrimination cases, often representing minority contractors. He also served as city attorney for East St. Louis from 1989 to 1991.
He’s perhaps best remembered for leading the blockade of Interstate 70 in 1990, prompting a deal with the state to increase minority participation on highway projects.
Years later, activists and state officials acknowledged that the I-70 protest sparked numerous changes for the better, including a construction training program initiated in the aftermath of the protest that has produced more than 1,000 graduates.
Mr. Vickers would organize a shutdown of I-70 again 15 years later, in protest over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson.
It was a lawsuit brought by Mr. Vickers against the city that brought about a law in St. Louis requiring that 25 percent of all city contracts be awarded to minority-owned businesses and 5 percent to women-owned businesses. That law is still in place today.
As comptroller, Jones worked with Mr. Vickers to help draft the law, but he was also on the receiving end of Mr. Vickers’ protests as an elected official, he said.
“Officials have to get re-elected, activists don’t,” he said. “We disagreed a lot, but I always knew his mission. He used to tell me his job was to keep me focused. He kept a lot of people focused.”
Beyond Mr. Vickers’ career achievements, Nasheed said he was a “man of integrity,” highly intellectual and devoted to his family and his Islamic faith. An Orthodox Muslim, he never missed a prayer, Nasheed said.
“And he had such a goofy laugh,” she said.
More recently, Mr. Vickers represented two Riverview Gardens administrators who alleged that school district staff falsified attendance records to improve the district’s chances of regaining full accreditation. He also represented a local roofing company suing BJC HealthCare, alleging that the health system discriminated against the minority-owned firm for construction work at its campus renewal project.
Recent news of Vickers’ battle with cancer came as a shock, Jones said.
“For a lot of us, we were just numb, because he was still out there fighting,” he said. “We were talking about one fight he was trying to get involved in with the city. I expected to see a lawsuit coming from him pretty soon.”
In his spare time, Mr. Vickers enjoyed writing short stories and poetry. In 2000, he published a book of poems and essays titled “And Men Don’t Talk: The Writings Of A Modern African-American Man.”
He wrote on his blog about the struggle of blacks and minorities for economic justice. Featured on the blog’s header is a quote from his mother to her son: “Your smart mouth will get you in trouble.”
“He cared about his people. He was an enemy to injustice,” Nasheed said. “So he will always be remembered by his fight for inclusion and African-American people. Not just in the state of Missouri, but throughout this country.”
His visitation is at 1 p.m. Saturday at Daar-ul-Islam Masjid, 517 Weidman Road in west St. Louis County. Funeral prayers will follow at 1:30 p.m. and burial at 2:30 p.m. at Lakewood Park Cemetery, 7330 Mackenzie Road, south St. Louis County.
Among the survivors are his son, Aaron Vickers of St. Louis; his daughter, Erica Cage of O'Fallon, Ill.; his father, Robert Vickers of University City; his sister, Vikki Deakin of Ogden, Utah; his brother, Steven Vickers of University City and three grandchildren.