When I sent to some friends the picture you texted me yesterday of my granddaughters – Pumpkin and Peanut - standing before a picture of me in the “#1 in Civil Rights” exhibition at the Missouri History Museum, one texted back that I should tell them the story of how that picture came to be. Maybe, I thought, I should also tell you, their mother, since you were about their age when it was taken.
The picture is from a protest that the organization I represented (and had incorporated), the St. Louis Minority Contractors Association, had staged in front of the office of St. Louis County government, demanding the County to enact a law requiring that blacks participate in all the contracts awarded by the government. We had held a press conference as part of the protest, which I recall was attended by much of the media and certainly by the newspaper that was a staunch proponent of economic inclusion, The St. Louis American. We fought this movement for construction contracts and jobs for blacks and women for two decades, with this being a photo of just one of many protests.
The picture shows me in the dual role I performed: attorney and activist. Suited up, I announced a lawsuit I had filed in federal court on behalf of the association against the County, and with the protest sign I marched and chanted with the group, reflecting our trademark strategy: “Agitation, litigation, negotiation.” I think my grandkids should know that I was a product of and shaped by the Black Power Movement of the 1970s, so I became a lawyer was for this purpose: to empower my people.
Also reflected in a strange way by the picture, though unseen, is my Muslim identity. The man in the hat whose face can also be seen is Wali Farqan, a Muslim businessman, whom I had come to know from the mosque, and who was a supporter of our protest efforts. Not in the picture were other Muslim leaders, who were not only the heart and mind of the protest actions undertaken by the association during that period, like shutting down Interstate 70, they acted with boldness and a sacrificial sense of fighting a righteous cause.
Obviously, I thought in looking at the picture, my granddaughters – being just 6 and 4 – could not see this spirit at work in the photo. Still, I agree with my friend that I should tell them the story that their grandfather would not have been there had he not decided, while in law school in Virginia, to choose Islam as his faith – to live up to what he was taught was the first duty of a Muslim attorney: to seek justice for the oppressed, not fearing the powerful.
Although at the time the picture was taken, being a grandfather was hardly on my mind, I think in the back of the minds of all of us protesting and involved in the movement then was that our grandchildren – and our children, for that matter – would not have to follow in our footsteps. Somewhere in the back of our minds I think was always the thought and hope that having to take it to the streets, file lawsuits, and in other ways fight for blacks to have equal economic opportunities would be history.
On the other hand, I thought as I looked at the picture, I hope my legacy can see that standing and fighting for a cause can be done with a smile.
Eric E. Vickers is a veteran attorney and activist and former chief of staff for state Senator Jamilah Nasheed. Visit also The St. Louis American.