Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
Eric joined up with the Hoosier Minority Chamber of Commerce at the right time. United Airlines was putting up a billion-dollar project and resolved to break us by excluding any members of our organization. This was “do or die” for us and it was a blessing to have Eric “Rambo” Vickers on our side. United’s strategy was to cut us off. Isolate and then ignore rendering us useless. Eric came up with the strategy of uniting as many minority contracting organizations as possible.
When we gathered for a showdown meeting with United in Chicago (their home base) we had assembled a coalition made up of contracting organizations representing Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville, all of Indiana and MBELDEF (headquartered in Washington, DC). We had demanded to speak to United President Wolf during a lunch at the Hilton Towers Hotel in downtown Chicago. United thought it was just going to be with me and the local group Black Contractors United which they funded and felt confident that they would support them and oppose me. They walked into the room with their principals, PR agent and some press. The press was to our surprise and the absence of President Wolf was an extreme disappointment.
Eric told us during our strategy morning session that if Wolf doesn’t show we will shutdown the meeting and kick them out of the room. It took five minutes of introduction when Eric stood up and demanded they leave the room. Eric in his rhetorical elegance began, “Don’t touch that food! We demanded to speak to President Wolf and he has refused to meet with us. Therefore, leave this room and prepare for the most organized, multi-state demonstration against your racist company. It will start in Indianapolis and spread to every city that is represented here by us. Eventually it will spread throughout our nation and the entire world will know how evil your business practices are. We won’t stop until you change your ways.”
When I got back home the result of the meeting was all over the press including local television. I began to organize a formal demonstration at the Indianapolis Airport. We recruited the Concerned Clergy (organization of 50 Black churches in Indianapolis) to participate in the demonstration. Also, and to our pleasant surprise, we got a call from the construction unions. They were mad at United Air Lines also since they refused to have a Project Labor Agreement for the construction after promising that they would. They pledged 600 demonstrators for our upcoming protest. I received a permit for the formal demonstration which allowed us to have 1000 protesters in front of the airport. At the same time of the demonstration airports representing the above cities would also have picket signs at the local United Airlines ticketing booths. The press was going crazy!
Two weeks before the big demonstration I got a call from Indianapolis Mayor Goldsmith’s office. They said the Mayor wants to meet with me immediately and be in his office by 9:00AM. A week prior to this I spoke with the mayor and he said, “Harry, United may move the project to some other city.” I replied, “Fine, we don’t want them here if our Black contractors can’t participate.” I guess he realized our commitment. When I got to his office representatives from the Governor’s office, United Airlines and a couple of lobbyists were there. The mayor stated, “Harry just what is it you want?” I retorted, “Our demands have not changed. We demand 15% of all work including architecture, engineering, construction, real estate relocations, concessions, legal work, etc. Plus, we should have a disparity study done. Mayor Goldsmith smiled and said, “OK, its done so let’s all shake hands and tell the press.”
After six months of struggle, it was over. That afternoon I received calls from some of my members. United Airlines construction manager called and said they should come in and decide which projects they wanted to perform. One of our Black law firms called and thanked me for getting him a lucrative retainer. Two Black real estate agents called and thanked me for getting them some relocations. Victory was ours. It was real, living, and immediate.
This was one of the greatest affirmative action victories in the nation. Pretty soon the whole nation knew about it. Calls from other Black chambers and minority organizations were being made. Some would come to town to see it for themselves.
One evening my wife Kay would say, “The entire nation knows about us. Maybe we should represent the whole nation.”
I called Eric and MBELDEF’s Anthony Robinson and retired Congressman Parren Mitchell about it. They all said, “Do it!”
The rest is history. It was the beginning of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce® Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: [email protected].