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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.

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."

A year later, King was shot. Two years would pass before that fire of discontent Vickers felt was channeled into his first protest -- a sit-down strike at University City High School to get more black teachers, counselors and books on African-Americans. "Character, like film, develops in the dark," Vickers says reflectively. His darkroom was his own insecurity about his weight and his size-40 pants. It kept him from being confident enough to participate in organizing the school protest. But that protest gave him a different kind of confidence. Locking arms with other black students, Vickers helped block the entrance of their school. "The white students walked up, and we wouldn't let them in," he says. "There was a real sense of power, and once you realize the power of organizing, you never lose that sense." It began to erase the helplessness he felt on that long and lonely walk. The protest shut down the school. Meetings were held. When the school reopened its doors, several days later, it had a black teacher, a black counselor and new books on African-American history. The results resonated with Vickers. "The death of King and Malcom X started the pot boiling," he says. "Consciousness was born into actions when the pot boiled over."

Fueled by the success of that first protest, Vickers wanted to feel the power again, but he had promised his parents he would finish college and enrolled at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. "The civil-rights movement was at its peak, and I felt like I was standing on the sideline," he says. "I wanted to live a life of purpose, like Martin Luther King, and I didn't think college was where it was at. I wanted to do something for the movement."

He did it at the Chuck-A-Burger on St. Charles Rock Road. Vickers had just become the first black manager of the burger joint when he decided one black manager for eight stores was not nearly enough. He wrote a letter to his boss, Bud Taylor, saying as much and threatening to organize the employees and picket. After Vickers presented a petition showing he had employee support, Taylor relented and promoted an older black man who had worked on the maintenance crew for years. The next day, Taylor fired Vickers. "He accused me of threatening to burn the place down," Vickers says. "I don't remember ever saying that, but the new manager I trained backed him up. I understood why -- he had a family and was making more money than he ever had before. Looking back, I think from the beginning I was training my own replacement." After the episode, Claire admonished her son: "Don't ever back a man in the corner unless you give him a way out. He will have no choice but to come after you." Vickers says it took years for that lesson to really sink in. Meanwhile, he continued to agitate at every turn.

After graduating from Washington University with a political-science degree and marrying Judy Gladney, Vickers participated in Occidental College's Coro Foundation fellowship program, doing a stint at General Dynamics Corp. He wrote a detailed report blasting the company for discriminatory practices and a lack of blacks in management positions. Vickers was quickly reassigned and told, he says, "not to write any more reports and just be quiet, observe and learn." After getting his master's degree from Occidental, he worked as a personnel manager at Monsanto and immediately rankled the employee union. "I started hiring all kinds of black people, and the union got upset because these were $15- and $20-an-hour jobs that had been going to their relatives and cousins." The company tried to work around him, assigning the bulk of the hiring work to someone else. "I started coming in on Saturdays, and by Monday there would be 20 or 30 new employees, all of them blacks or women," Vickers says.

For all his rabble-rousing, Vickers wanted more. Over the years, he had thought about becoming a lawyer, but he didn't want to go to law school. Two things happened to change his mind. First, he was seated on a jury for a personal-injury case. "I sat through the trial thinking I could do this," he says. "I started feeling that if I did, I could really make a difference." A few weeks later, Vickers got his chance when he represented a black Monsanto employee at a union hearing. "I liked defending him and liked it even more when we won and he got to keep his job," Vickers says. Less than six months later, in the fall of 1978, 25-year-old Vickers was in law school at the University of Virginia.

"I think I realized that the core of racism and the soul of justice rested in the criminal and court system," Vickers says. "I never wanted to be just an attorney. I wanted to be a lawyer fighting for justice where it most mattered, inside its very core."

Full of confidence and promise, Vickers started working for the silk-stocking firm of Bryan Cave in 1981. But fighting for justice and being a lawyer would prove harder than he had ever imagined. He was the only black freshman attorney to get a job with the firm that year -- and the only one to fail the bar exam. The humiliating blow was delivered on the heels of the birth of his first child, Erica. "I had never failed before," he says, tears again welling up. "I had been riding around on the pedestal of success, and then I was knocked off. Everyone was watching me, and when I failed the bar, it made me feel like I let everyone down, including my entire race. I remember my daughter wasn't even a month old, and it was like she was picking up on my dark mood. She wouldn't open her eyes and look at me."

He found solace in his Muslim faith, a religion he had converted to while in Virginia. "This brother who had no idea I had failed the bar came up to me at the mall," Vickers recalls. "We talked for a short while, and out of nowhere he told me it was truly hard to know the difference between a blessing and a curse until God reveals it to us at a later day. I really felt like I was getting a message from Allah to keep me strong and moving forward. I learned to hold my head up high, and the second time I took [the exam], I passed."

Nevertheless, Vickers holds racism responsible for his first bar-exam failure. He notes that a lawsuit, filed years earlier, accused the Missouri Bar Association of purposefully failing a greater number of blacks on the bar exam. The suit, however, was dismissed for lack of evidence. When pressed, Vickers admits that he has no real evidence, either, but remains steadfast in his view: "I knew I was prepared. I just don't believe I really failed it."

In 1984, after working for Bryan Cave, Vickers struck out on his own and established Vickers, Moore and Wiest, a small firm in the Central West End. Even as the law practice kept him busy, his passion for justice had him fighting on different fronts, and by his own admission, he was spread way too thin. "I was doing a lot of things I believed in very much," Vickers says. "I stretched myself, and in doing that I opened the door that made me vulnerable."

Almost immediately, he started taking difficult criminal cases and even more complicated civil-rights cases.

Eddie Hasan was president of the St. Louis Minority Contractors Association when he received a letter from a young black attorney named Eric Vickers. "The letter inspired me," Hasan says. "I knew this was the kind of guy I could get behind. He had energy, could articulate an issue, and he showed no fear. He was the missing link in the battle we were waging to get equal consideration for contracts. He had a voice and a legal arm." A year later, when Hasan became director of MO-KAN, a minority-contractor-advocacy group, Vickers became its legal arm. It was the first time he was able to fuse his legal expertise with his activisim. He branched out to other cities as well, fighting for minority contractors in Texas, Florida and other states. As if that wasn't enough, he did more. While doing legal work for MO-KAN, organizing strikes and maintaining a legal practice, he stepped into another role that would prove more demanding than all the others combined: Vickers became the city attorney for East St. Louis under the colorful and controversial Mayor Carl Officer.

Officer and Vickers were childhood friends but had lost touch for some years. Then Officer heard about the ambitious young lawyer who took on Francis Touchette, the political boss of St. Clair County. "It was his own little fiefdom," Officer says. "Everyone had to pay to be a part of it, usually through a campaign donation. It was kind of like a tithe, except God doesn't fire you if you don't pay up." One woman refused to pay and was fired. Vickers took her case and won her job back. "I heard about him winning against Touchette because everyone was talking about it, and I thought, 'That's the kind of lawyer we need,'" says Officer.

By the time Vickers came on board in 1988, Officer was into his third term and had a reputation not only as one of the youngest mayors in the nation but also as a provocateur. Officer had rocked the white St. Clair County Democratic machine. His own behavior, which included unstrapping a shoulder-holstered 9mm pistol before delivering a speech to schoolchildren and promising to support a new hospital obstetrical unit by fathering as many children as possible, only made matters worse. Officer and Vickers found themselves locked in an all-out war with federal, state and local officials, mostly white. "I got a call from a judge right before I started working for East St. Louis, and he told me if I represented Carl and the city that it would ruin my professional career," Vickers says. "He was being kind."

"It was like I was the mayor of Beirut," Officer says with a laugh, "and everyone from the Justice Department to the state's attorney to the FBI were throwing Scud missiles our way. We had the EPA, the CIA, every A you can think of looking over our shoulder. Eric and I had us some adventures." In one such adventure, Officer and Vickers were hauled off to jail in handcuffs for contempt of court after missing a court appearance in a case involving city sewers. Another time, the two went for a routine hearing in that case but, by the time they left the courthouse in Belleville, learned that Judge Roger Scrivner had awarded the East St. Louis City Hall to settle a $3.4 million judgment. A jury had found the city liable for the injuries sustained by Walter DeBow, an inmate who was beaten by another prisoner in the city jail. "It was like going in for a traffic ticket and coming out convicted of murder," says Officer. Already jailed once for contempt of court, the two saved the swearing for the drive back home. "I was threatening to arm every citizen of East St. Louis to keep them from taking City Hall," Officer says. Reminded that his own bodyguards always carried automatic weapons, he laughs and adds, "Yeah, and I was planning on putting them on the front line."

"Eric just kept saying over and over that they couldn't legally do this," he adds. "I told him, 'I'll fight them off, and you keep taking them back to court until they do the right thing.'" Ultimately the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the decision, ruling it unconstitutional, but it was just one more legal battle on a lengthy roster. In fact, over the course of three years, Vickers found himself buried in approximately 300 legal battles for the city. Because of political infighting at City Hall, Officer's opponents had already cut the legal budget from $155,000 a year to $2. Vickers kept working anyway. "I promised Carl's mother I would keep her son out of jail," Vickers says with a laugh. "I guess I kept him from going in for anything serious." Proving once again that he has always been more an activist than a lawyer, Vickers adds, "I know I made a lot of enemies in St. Clair County, but I think they would have been enemies anyway because of what I stood for."

By the time Officer lost his bid for re-election in 1991 and Vickers resigned his position, Vickers' law partners had bailed out and the IRS had filed a lien against the firm for $22,926 in back employment taxes. Vickers maintains that the lien was a typical small-business-owner oversight and that he was left holding the financial bag. Clearly a rift was developing between Vickers and his partners. When a white secretary filed a complaint accusing Vickers and the firm of reverse discrimination, his partners -- Charles Wiest and Loretta Moore -- supported her claim, which was later thrown out on a technicality. Vickers dismisses the whole thing, saying, "She had trouble working with a black boss."

Wiest, Vickers' former partner, doesn't even want to talk about it. "Every time I even mention Eric Vickers' name, it ends up costing me money," he says before abruptly hanging up.

Vickers was on his own, and his passionate war against "economic racism" propelled him into the political arena as well as onto Wall Street. Meanwhile, when his clients needed him, he was too preoccupied to return their calls.

In 1994, when he should have been shoring up his law practice and tending to his clients, Vickers took on the black political leadership in St. Louis by choosing to run against its titular head, U.S. Rep.William Clay (D-1st), a man who'd been re-elected a dozen times. He made few friends in the process. One day before the Democratic primary, Vickers went to Clay's campaign headquarters to challenge the congressman to a debate. He got into a shoving match with one of Clay's bodyguards. Vickers says he was shoved in the face with both hands before being escorted out. He filed charges, but a judge determined there was no injury or criminal intent and dismissed the charge. Vickers lost the primary, getting 19 percent of the vote.

Undaunted, Vickers turned his guns on the banking industry, battling them both in the courts and the streets. There is a gleam in his eye when he talks about a 1996 protest against NationsBank, which had just arrived in town after gobbling up Boatmen's Bank. Vickers demanded that the bank pledge $1 billion in loans to minority businesses over 10 years. NationsBank politely declined, saying it was tending to the interests of minorities quite well on its own. Vickers decided that this response called for an old-fashioned mass protest. He solicited MO-KAN, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the Minority Business Enterprise and Legal Defense Fund and organized a rally -- on Wall Street in New York. In a week's time, they managed to charter a jet, fill it with 146 people -- most of them homeless -- and head to a protest outside the New York Stock Exchange. It was bold move, and it made a media splash. "That was a first-class rally," says Vickers. That evening, everyone dined at Sylvia's, a first-class soul-food joint in Harlem. But for all its bluster, the protest was somewhat misdirected -- NationsBank happened to be one of the top lenders in the country for home loans to minorities. No data are available to support Vickers' claim regarding business loans to minorities [Safir Ahmed, "By Any Means Necessary," RFT, Dec. 18, 1996].

Vickers sticks to his guns. "They had a really good spin doctor," he says. "They definitely weren't the best, but even if they were, the best was not nearly enough. It started with NationsBank, but it was aimed at all banks in general." NationsBank never acceded to Vickers' demands; nevertheless, he sees success. "When Firstar came into town, we built on that protest, and now we have a $100 million commitment to North St. Louis." Vickers has participated in close to 100 protests and has been arrested eight times. He picketed against and sued Schnucks for not hiring blacks. He sued a Missouri judge for setting outrageous bail amounts that kept blacks in jail and won. He negotiated a deal with the Chrysler plant in Fenton to employ more blacks.

But never was there a cause so clear as going after the Missouri Department of Transportation, a $1 billion-plus agency that was awarding a mere 3 percent of its contracts to minority firms, with blacks conspicuously absent from highway-construction sites. Vickers led the charge, and when negotiations failed, he pulled off a dramatic -- and successful -- civil-disobedience action. On July 12, 1999, 300 protestors, displaying seamless planning and execution, marched onto Interstate 70 during the midst of the morning rush hour and sat down in the lanes, shutting down the highway. The media recorded every minute of it, including the angry commuters and the Rev. Al Sharpton. If Eric Vickers was not quite a familiar name to some people, after that day, it was.

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."

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."

Prosecutor Sam Phillips was blunt in his report, especially with regard to Vickers' outspoken nature. "It is apparent that Mr. Vickers has the ability to raise the defendant's and public's awareness of his clients concerns," he wrote. "Unfortunately it is also apparent that he often does not follow through. He either takes too many cases, gets bored or doesn't care what his clients want so that he does not fulfil some basic duties of representation."

Nor did it help Vickers' case that he missed his own disciplinary-board hearings and did not answer subpoenas. Phillips argued in his brief that this behavior further established "a pattern of reflecting his disregard for the court's authority to regulate the profession."

In November 1999, after a three-day hearing, the three-member panel recommended that Vickers' law license be suspended for 30 days. Phillips disagreed and recommended a one-year suspension, arguing that the complaints showed a pattern of neglect that could not be corrected in 30 days. A judge handed down a 90-day law-license suspension, assessed a charge of $3,200 in restitution to the Washingtons and ordered Vickers to attend a law-office-management class.

Vickers says he was being punished not just for his sins of omission in regard to his clients but for his sins of commission in regard to his activism. "In his brief [the prosecutor] talked about my public activities," he notes. "If someone can explain what my public activities had to do with this and why there is a difference between the board's recommendation and the prosecution's, maybe I would feel differently. But no one can. When I first got my license, everyone recommended I be on the sidelines and not be so vocal. Everyone warned they would come after my license, and they were right."

It is precisely this characteristic of Vickers' -- seeing racism where it is, and sometimes where it isn't -- that bothers and confounds other black leaders, including the Rev. Johnny Scott, president of the East St. Louis NAACP chapter. "Eric Vickers is a good advocate, but he is not the best lawyer," Scott says. "I think his intentions are good, but he sometimes leaves his clients out there to fend for themselves. I think he is quick to pull the race card. I know racism occurs. I'm not blind to that, but I try to veer away from those who see it around every bend. Calling it racism when you are not completely sure only hurts the future credibility of when it is."

Hasan only partially agrees. "I think the board's decision was a wakeup call to Eric that he cannot be everything to all people," he says. "The board hit him hard because of who he is, but the truth is, Eric neglected his practice and opened the door."

"[Hasan] makes a good point," Vickers responds. "But I still believe it was a largely unavoidable consequence. I understand that when you are outspoken, you have to make sure you cross all t's and dot the i's, but it is difficult to do that when you are the midst of fighting an economic war. Once I was in it, I couldn't do the all the things that were needed to make sure they wouldn't have any room to come after my practice, and I could not follow through with the things I was doing to make the most difference out on the front lines."

It did not take long, however, for Vickers' passion and the fire down below to begin licking away at his credibility. Last summer, spurred by the fatal shooting of two black men at a North County Jack in the Box by two undercover drug officers, Vickers stepped into the fray, even though police brutality had never been his issue. The move was a surprise to others in the black community. "We had all these other shootings before," says the Rev. Philip Duvall, "but he had never been in the forefront of that. He was always fighting for economic issues, and suddenly he is focusing on police brutality. Where was he during the Dodson case and all the others we had been fighting?"

Because Vickers was running for Congress again, many saw his motivation as media-mongering. But Vickers says one of the victims had the middle name of Aaron, and this struck a nerve with him. "My son is named Aaron," he says. "I started thinking, 'What if this had been my son?" I became outraged that nobody was doing anything." Against the advice of everyone around him, Vickers and Tiahmo Ra-uf, now Al Sharpton's regional head of operations, demanded to see the parking-lot surveillance tape showing the shooting. "He is a lawyer," Duvall says. "The videotape was evidence. He knew they weren't going to give him the videotape."

Vickers vowed to shut the highway down again, only this time he did not have the support he needed. "We didn't need to do it," Duvall says. "The powers that be were sitting down and talking to us. He was just stirring stuff up for the sake of stirring."

"He came into my office and told me what he planned to do," Kling says. "I told him, 'This cause has nothing to do with the highway. You are only going to hurt yourself by doing it and lose credibility.'" Even Hasan, his closest friend and adviser, told him not to do it. "Oh, we had words," Hasan says. "I think he started out with his heart in the right place but then lost sight of what was right. He became a politician instead of statesman." The protest, which had drawn much media attention primarily because of the earlier shutdown, fizzled, and it became clear there were not enough protesters to pull it off. At the 11th hour, the action was called off, with deference to the victims' families given as the official reason. Says Duvall: "They were saying it was because of the victims' family, but everyone knew the real reason why."

At the time, Duvall was tight-lipped when it came to talking about Vickers, simply telling reporters the man was "wounded."

The wounds are now quite apparent. Vickers after losing his law license, hasn't reapplied yet to get it back. The financial consequences are taking their toll. In September, he was evicted and the contents of his law office at Delmar Boulevard and Midland Avenue were put out on the street. "It was difficult," he says softly. "But I looked at all that out there on the street and realized it was just material things. It doesn't change who I am." Meanwhile, he suffered a humiliating defeat in his second attempt at Clay's Congressional seat, running against Clay's son, William "Lacy" Clay and garnering just 6 percent of the primary vote. To compound matters, his 25-year marriage is on the rocks, and he is getting by on a sharply reduced income, derived from consulting work.

Critics and supporters alike say Vickers' fire and passion are a double-edged sword. "The intensity of his desire is so strong, he gets caught in the movement and doesn't always see the big picture," says Hasan, still one of Vickers' closest friends. "He will go 110 percent with you, but at times he is so strong he often runs out in front before he knows where he is going. You're faced, then, with the very difficult task of trying to hold him back so he doesn't get off track and lost before he accomplishes the goal."

Even Claire Vickers worries that her son might be too confrontational. "He is fighting windmills like Don Quixote and keeps taking on the system," she says. "He wants to move the whole world instead of trying to move it one piece at a time. He cares about things so deeply that he hurts when he can't get things accomplished. I can see it in his eyes. He doesn't have to say a word."

Those closest to Vickers agree that he is an enigma, often disillusioned by what he sees yet optimistic he can change it. He is as likable as he is confrontational, vulnerable as he is strong-willed. His friends say he can be infuriatingly tenacious and stubborn but can just as easily be distracted by simple poetic introspection. He is both a product and a reflection of the racism he sees around every corner. "Is he playing the race card, or is he playing the justice card?" says Anthony Shaheed, an activist whose views lie further left of Vickers'. "As a black man who has been subjected to racism, I would say he is playing the justice card. Eric does not see racism where it does not exist. He is looking at the world through his eyes and sees racism where and as it truly is. He is many things, but what he is most of all is what white America made him to be."

It has been 33 years since the day King died and 15-year-old Vickers walked in anger. Sitting in his living room, Vickers, dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, holds a book of speeches by King. "Today is the anniversary of the last full day King walked on this earth," he says solemnly. Suddenly appearing around the edges of this controversial man is the outline of that struggling teenager trying to find a balanced role in his fight against injustice: "King was moving beyond fighting racism and fighting for economic justice as well. That is my goal, to pick up where he left off, in my small way." To that end, Vickers has started a new organization. The Coalition for North St. Louis Economic Development will hold a summit next week, one of the group's first public efforts to gain support and find solutions. "I want Martin Luther King Drive to reflect the name," Vickers says. "I want it to be a thriving stretch with black businesses and a vibrant life of its own."

As for his law license, he wants it back -- not to open a law office but to open doors to more activism. "My practice, as I was doing it, is behind me," he says. "I want to concentrate on just the practice of law for civil rights. If I do it that way, I will be pure lawyer. I don't see the need to be as vocal, because I've already said so many things. I think I'm in a different phase, working on economic development, organizing along those lines."

Vickers' eyes fill, and for a moment the fire seems tempered with age.

"I knew what I would face in life," he says. "Even way back then, when King died, I knew if I was going to get into the civil-rights struggle I would have to be prepared to take some hits. You can't be on the cutting edge and not expect to get cut." He smiles. "You have to enjoy the totality of the moment -- the good and bad. It is all a complete circle. You can't have one without the other."

Vickers pauses and recalls that long walk 33 years ago. "I am still that man," he says. "I am still taking steps, and I am still on the same path. I feel more like I found it."

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