In December the City of St. Louis will reach a 25 year milestone – the law requiring that 25 percent of all city contracts be awarded to minority-owned businesses and 5 percent to women-owned businesses – which presents an opportune time to assess the economic status of African Americans in our city.
On December 11, 1990, U.S. District Court Judge Clyde Cahill – the sole black federal district judge at the time – signed off on a consent decree that was the result of a lawsuit I filed against the City of St. Louis on behalf of the St. Louis Minority Contractors Association, as special counsel to the Washington, D.C.-based Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
Under the terms of the decree, the city established these percentages and a minority and women business enterprise (M/WBE) program through a mayoral executive order, which was to remain in effect until such time as a similar M/WBE ordinance was enacted by the Board of Aldermen. Because of vehement opposition from South Side aldermen, such an ordinance was never passed, with the decree thus remaining in effect through subsequent mayoral administrations renewing the executive order.
This law, which has become known in the construction industry simply as "The 25/5," established for the first time in the city's history an institutionalized mechanism for M/WBE inclusion. Prior to the decree, the level of minority and women business participation was negotiated on a project by project basis, with black politicians, like then Comptroller Virvus Jones, pressing the issue.
It is worth noting in this Ferguson era that the decree came about through the process and combination of litigation, agitation and negotiation. The lawsuit was filed in 1989, and as it was being litigated – with vigorous opposition from the city – protest actions were being carried out by the association, including one that entailed a group of us being arrested for blockading a construction site.
The protests reached a pinnacle point when then Mayor Vincent Schoemehl was confronted and verbally assaulted by demonstrators one morning in front of City Hall. He dealt with the situation head on, inviting us to meet in his office that afternoon. After that rancorous and name-calling meeting and a series of follow up meetings, we were able to come to an agreement. We carved out the terms of the decree, crafting it from the best M/WBE programs in place in other cities.
More important than establishing this as the policy of the city, however, was the tone for minority economic inclusion it established for the region. It had an immediate ripple effect, with other institutions, like the St. Louis Public Schools, following suit to establish M/WBE mandates. Moreover, it staked out black economic development as a critical civil rights issue.
With the Ferguson Commission report noting our dire, racially disparate economic climate, we should pause at this 25-year juncture to evaluate the decree's impact and the effectiveness of its enforcement. The theory underlying it was that the development of minority businesses would create jobs for minorities, who would be employed by these businesses, and hence enhance the economic condition of the black community.
Promoting black entrepreneurship was seen as key to what the founder of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund, U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell, said was the final phase of the civil rights struggle – the struggle for economic parity. Arguably, until that phase is completed, black lives will remain devalued.
Eric E. Vickers is an attorney, activist and former chief of staff for state Senator Jamilah Nasheed.