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Black Firefighters In Chicago Call For Justice On MLK Day

On Jan 15, Michael Taqee and other members of the Lewis Class held a press conference discussing their grievances and connected Dr. King’s fight against inequality to their own

On Martin Luther King Day, Black firefighters in Chicago seized the opportunity to highlight their ongoing struggle for denied promotions. The “Lewis Class,” consisting of 117 Black firefighters in the city, named after the Lewis v. City of Chicago lawsuit, which found the city violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in 2005 due to discriminatory hiring practices, is rekindling the fight initiated by its namesake. According to the Chicago Tribune, former firefighter Michael Taqee expressed that an admissions practice from the 1990s adversely impacted his chances of securing a promotion before being compelled to retire by the city. Taqee explained to the Tribune, “It was a race to the finish line, so I knew that I would never be afforded the opportunity to get promoted, so I decided to leave early. I wanted to chase dreams before I got too old to chase them.”

On Jan. 15, Taqee and other members of the Lewis class held a press conference to discuss their grievances and connect Dr. King’s fight against inequality to their own. Rodney Shelton, an engineer for the Chicago Fire Department, cut said at the press conference, “From my perspective on King, he fought for civil rights. This was a civil rights case, and even with what we thought was a great outcome, you still have hills and valleys.” Shelton added, “People fought for us, and now we’re going to continue that fight.”

According to attorney Chiquita Hall-Jackson, who is representing the firefighters, the first Black firefighter in the Lewis class was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in August. Hall-Jackson said that the disparity in promotions between the Lewis class and other academy classes of Black firefighters indicates change must take place. “That’s what we’re here for, and that’s why now the harm has been shown, because exams have been taken and these individuals have been harmed because they don’t get the actual seniority points that they were required to get and are entitled to.”

The motion the firefighters are bringing primarily concerns the use of seniority in promotions tests, and because some of the firefighters were excluded from being hired in the 1990s, it makes it hard for them to overcome the 30% weight assigned to seniority and become promoted to ranks such as lieutenant, captain, or battalion chief. In 1995, around 26,000 potential firefighters took a written exam to become firefighters. However, because the City of Chicago only had several hundred jobs available, it cut those scoring 88 or below from consideration. The result of this arbitrary cut-off number was a process that discriminated against Black and other minority applicants. 

U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled in 2005 that the test created a “disparate impact” because the city did not justify the cut-off score. For its part, the city agreed with the judge’s decision that it was discriminatory but argued it was necessary due to the high volume of applicants. Though the city did not appeal Judge Gottschall’s ruling, it asserted that the firefighters waited too long to bring a suit. However, the Supreme Court disagreed with their assertion in 2010. 

Shelton sees their case as an extension of the earlier case.This right here is a continuation of a case that started in 1998,” Shelton said. “We saw it firsthand after we took our first promotion exam.”

As Audacy reported, Hall-Jackson says that at its heart, her clients’ case is about justice, saying, “They will never see an opportunity to get promoted before they are aged out of the department. These firefighters are asking for justice as it relates to their seniority and their pay, and their ability to be promoted in the workplace.”

According to Hall-Jackson, the city has until Jan. 31 to respond to the filing from November.

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