Eric Erfan Vickers was born in Saint Louis, Missouri on February 16, 1953. His mother, Claire Lee, was a federal government worker. His father, Robert Vickers, was the superintendent of schools in Venice, Illinois.
While attending University City High School in Missouri, Eric Erfan Vickers participated in a student-led sit-down to protest the alleged paucity of black teachers and staffers on campus. When the tactic ultimately succeeded in pressuring the school to hire more blacks, Vickers’ self-confidence as an activist soared. “There was a real sense of power,” he would later recall, “and once you realize the power of organizing, you never lose that sense.”
After completing high school, Vickers attended St. Louis Community College at Forest Park before transferring to Washington University, where he graduated with a political science degree in 1975. He later earned a master’s degree at Occidental College in California, followed by a JD at the University of Virginia Law School in 1981. While pursuing his legal studies, Vickers converted to Islam and became a Muslim activist.
Upon completing law school, Vickers worked as an attorney specializing in civil rights and business law. In 1983, he and two partners established their own firm, Vickers Moore & Wiest, whose clientele consisted mostly of nonwhite minority contractors. In the mid-1980s, Vickers also began working for the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund, which provided legal representation for nonwhite business owners.
In 1985 Vickers incorporated the Columbia, Missouri branch of the Islamic African Relief Agency — later renamed the Islamic American Relief Agency — on behalf of some Sudanese college students who sought to establish a chapter in the U.S.
In 1988 Vickers represented his boyhood friend, East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer, in a number of legal matters. By this time, Officer had established a reputation for outrageous behavior and poor management skills. When both Vickers and Officer missed one of their court dates, the presiding judge charged them with contempt and sent them to the St. Clair County jail.
In 1990, a consent decree and executive order resolved a federal lawsuit that Vickers had brought against the city of St. Louis on behalf of minority contractors. As a result, minority-owned businesses were now guaranteed of receiving at least 25 percent of all contracts with the city, and female-owned businesses were assured of receiving at least 5 percent of all contracts.
In a July 12, 1999 protest claiming that not enough African Americans were being hired to work on highway projects in the St. Louis area, Vickers and Al Sharpton led a group of approximately 300 demonstrators in blocking traffic on Interstate 70 during the morning rush-hour. At the time, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MDT) had been awarding just 3 percent of its contracts to minority-owned firms. In response to the protest, then-Governor Mel Carnahan and MDT officials promptly began negotiating with Vickers and Sharpton, and on July 22 an agreement was reached in which the MDT promised to initiate a training program for more than 1,000 minority construction workers. The Department also set aside 10 percent of all construction contracts for minority-owned firms, and 25 percent of all construction jobs for minority workers. “I have learned to use public protest for the benefit of the weak and downtrodden,” Vickers later stated.
Vickers twice had his law license suspended and subsequently restored. One of the suspensions occurred in early 2000, when he was disbarred for having neglected the needs of his clients, many of whom had filed complaints against him. That same year, Vickers was evicted from his office in University City, and in 2003 he lost his home to foreclosure. Vickers also ran twice, without success, for then-Rep. William “Bill” Clay’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In May 2001, Vickers attended a National Leadership Focus Group sponsored by Muslim Americans in Public Square. Other notable attendees included Abdullah Idris Ali, Nihad Awad, Ihsan Bagby, Shaker Elsayed, John Esposito, Souheil Ghannouchi, Wallace Deen Muhammad, Zulfiqar Ali Shah, and Muzammil Siddiqi.
In the aftermath of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11, Vickers argued that Americans should clearly distinguish authentic Islam from the radical faith of the homicidal Muslims who had flown jetliners into U.S. buildings. He also met privately with President George W. Bush on two occasions. In an effort to place the actions of Islamic terrorists in context, Vickers once stated that while “we condemn any sort of terrorist activities,” “we can’t be simplistic in our views.” “We have to recognize exactly what is occurring in the Middle East,” he explained. “We have to recognize that what is occurring there is an uprising by the Palestinian people.”
In January 2002, Vickers publicly defended University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who had been accused of involvement with the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Denouncing what he called the character assassination that the media were aiming at the suspect, Vickers said, “What has happened to professor Arian is happening to Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent all over this country. They are being discriminated against.”
On June 27, 2002, Vickers told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that al-Qaeda was “involved in a resistance movement.” On September 26 of that year, in a letter to editor of the Buffalo News, Vickers wrote: “We [Americans] have no more right or business putting Wahhabism on trial for the September 11 attack … than we do putting Christianity on trial for the Oklahoma City bombing.”
On January 29, 2003 – as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq – Vickers condemned President Bush’s expression of faith that a Higher Power would guide U.S. forces to victory. “In invoking God to be with American soldiers in our apparently imminent war with Iraq,” said Vickers, “what the president did not say is that he is calling on God to kill innocent Iraqi children.”
That same month, Vickers, who was the executive director of the American Muslim Council (AMC), sent a memorandum to the imams of American mosques, telling them: “AMC calls upon you to demonstrate mass criticism and activism against the new FBI policy, which directs FBI field offices nationwide to conduct an inventory of mosques and Muslims as part of their charge to develop demographic profiles of their regions to combat possible terrorism.”
Also around that time, Vickers penned a letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, imploring him to “shine some world light on these ‘un-American’ practices by the U.S. government” – a reference to the government’s investigation of Muslim groups with possible terrorist ties. “I am writing to request that the United Nations begin an immediate inquiry into the political repression of Muslim[s] and Arab[s] … by the United States government,” Vickers wrote.
On January 31, 2003, Vickers revisited the theme of America’s discrimination against Muslims: “As long as the war on terrorism exists, the government is not going to cease profiling Muslims, having selective INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] registrations, spying on mosques and Muslims, detaining Muslims, raiding Muslim organizations and businesses, bringing fishing-expedition criminal indictments, etc…. Thus I think we have no real choice but to follow the wise example of our brother Malcolm X and take our case to the world community.”
Vickers lost his job as AMC’s executive director when an e-mail was exposed in which he wrote that the deadly February 1, 2003 explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia may have been “a sign from God about America’s future” — in light of the fact that the disaster took place, with what Vickers saw as great symbolic importance, above the city of Palestine, Texas.
After a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot and killed an 18-year-old black male named Michael Brown in an August 2014 altercation that made national headlines and propelled Black Lives Matter to enormous prominence, Vickers called on black leaders across the U.S. to engage in civil disobedience as a means of drawing attention to the racism that allegedly infected police departments from coast to coast.
Vickers died of pancreatic cancer on April 13, 2018.
Further Reading: “Activist Attorney Eric E. Vickers Passes at 65” (The St. Louis American, 4-17-2018); “Obituary: Eric E. Vickers, Attorney and Activist Known for I-70 Blockade, Dies at 65” (St. Louis Public Radio, 4-16-2018).