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EXCERPT: The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
State Government
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The following is a chapter from columnist and author John L. Smith’s new book on civil rights in Nevada through the eyes and experience of Joe Neal, the first African American to serve in the state Senate. Neal moved to Nevada in 1963, climbed the political ranks and employed his position to fight for improved rights for convicted felons and increased services in public education, mental health and the state’s libraries.

A Day for Dr. King, Years in the Making

Throughout his long legislative career, Joe Neal used his bully pulpit to call for death penalty and prison reforms, national health care, women’s rights, increased funding for public education and libraries, better environmental protection for Lake Tahoe, greater commercial fire safety and higher taxes on the gaming industry. Along the way, he never stopped reminding his colleagues of the many contributions African Americans have made to U.S. history and the need for a national holiday commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With the advantage of time, such a request seems self-evident, almost embarrassingly so. King’s call for peaceful protest for civil rights for all was clarion and echoed far beyond America’s shores.

But the groundswell of support for a deserved recognition of the man whose name is mentioned often with those of Gandhi and Lincoln was a long time coming. It was in a spirit of respectful commemoration on April 4,1985, that Neal gave a testimonial to his fellow senators as they prepared to leave Carson City for a holiday weekend:

“We are getting ready in a few moments to adjourn the session so that many of us can go and engage in the Easter festivities which begin this weekend. With that in mind, I wish to remind the senators that on this day 17 years ago, Martin Luther King was assassinated. He was a man of nonviolence, but yet he was stricken down by a violent act. Those of you who have been reading the papers are aware of the situation of the white supremacy group that was arrested not too long ago who had as their goals and objectives the overthrow of the government by violence.

“Martin Luther King’s philosophy simply was that if you see an unjust law, then you should challenge that unjust law through a nonviolent act. In so doing, you must also be willing to pay the consequences of that challenge; that is to go to jail, which in essence reconfirmed the law. That was simply his philosophy and one in which many of us have tried to spread throughout the nation by asking those legislatures, some twenty-five of them, who have adopted the law honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King. It was not that we honor such  a man, but he had become symbolic of a principle within this country that many of us should aspire to. I know that some of the senators have raised some questions as to whether or not this would be appropriate. As I have been told, that the only birthdays that we have had were George Washington and the birthday of Jesus Christ. Even the birthdays of those famous individuals are ones in which we represent, aspire to, acknowledge as being symbolic of their times and what they represent. If we took them separately and tried to find fault with each of those individuals, we probably could....

“So it is this symbolism that a person like Martin Luther King died for. He spoke against degradation and the many problems that black people have had since that Dutch ship appeared off the coast of Jamestown in 1619 and sold twenty black people into slavery. It is symbolic of the fight and points up over 400 years of unrequited love that black people have shown this country but yet cannot, as of this day and even in the State of Nevada, have such a measure passed to honor this symbolism that this gentleman represents. Even though this state, which prides itself on coming into the Union is opposed to. . . slavery.” Hence Nevada’s official slogan of Battle Born.

“I ask my colleagues today, as you go home for the Easter break, to think about these things. Think about what it means. Think about the change that such an action can bring. It is better to be nonviolent in a situation than to be violent. It is better to send a signal to those who ascribe to the principle of white supremacy and who want to go out and take over the government through armed rebellion. It is better to send a signal by creating a day in memory of Martin Luther King who represented nonviolent actions to unjust actions.”

Little more than a month later, Neal was back on the floor of the Senate imploring his colleagues to see the King birthday commemoration in the light of history. And history, he said, would not be kind to the small-minded. Neal had maintained his sense of humor through many years of snubs, disappointments, and excuses from the Legislature’s Democratic leadership and Nevada’s political bosses. The state’s motto could easily have been “Profit Over Progress.” Neal was not deterred.

But on May 14, 1985, his patience appeared exhausted. The Legislature, once again, was fiddling with joining a majority of states in officially recognizing the King birthday for respect. It was, once again, being blocked by delay and inaction despite marginal fiscal cost to the state. Although Neal acknowledged he believed he had many friends in the chamber, he called them out for their insensitivity.

“I know that it is difficult for many of you to vote upon a measure that would honor a black person in this country,” he said. “Over twenty-five states have done that. They did it because the representation of black people in this country has meant something....

“It is painful that in 1985 that I find it necessary to have inserted into the journal words that speak about my representation in this country and my unending quest to see that the Declaration of Independence applies to me also.”

He then launched into a liturgical-style reading of black contributions to history, reeling off the struggle of slaves and the bravery of the duty-called. The names poured forth from Neal: from mess hall worker Dorie Miller at Pearl Harbor to the legion of volunteers who fought during the Civil War; opera singers Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, heavyweight champions Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson, Nevada pioneers Ben Palmer and Lorenzo Barton. On he went until legislators from every corner of Nevada were reminded that blacks had been part of the state’s history from the start.

Reading from a prepared text, Neal offered,

“My history is not of one that has just come upon the scene a few years ago. It has been ingrained in this country ever since you sought to have a country. So when I asked for a holiday, it is not because it is a representative of the man whose name would carry that particular holiday because we need some points of reference.

“Who among you would give your life for a cause? Who among you would try to establish a principle of justice and say to the nation as a whole that you can turn the other cheek when you have been stricken by violence? I don’t think that many of you can do that. Who among you can say that if you have an unjust law on the books, you are supposed to challenge that law? Even though in challenging that law, you must be willing to pay the consequences even to go to jail and therefore reconfirm that law. That was the philosophy of Martin Luther King and that is the idea that this holiday speaks to.

“Let me tell you about some of your actions here today and what it represents. I could become the butt of that action because you have people going around the country today who call themselves the Aryan race, which means they believe in white supremacy. They go out and kill people. I could be killed today as a state senator just because I was a state senator. Your action breeds that type of activity when you do not recognize the fact or even consider the fact that black people have a right and they have a place in this country. I know that some of you have said that you don’t believe that Martin should have a holiday. Martin gave his life because of the things he believed in. Martin could have said to some twenty million black people, ‘Don’t march. Get some guns and go out and fight.’ He could have said that, but no, he did not say that because he was a much stronger person....We listened to a person who said, ‘No, that is not the right way even though you have been beaten, slaughtered, or killed because of your color, because of your race and because of who you are. You must not resort to violence.’ That is Martin Luther King.

“So what I am saying to you today is raising the issue because some of you who are my friends do not understand. I want to tell you how I feel and about how black people feel about the action that was taken here today.”

Neal’s remarks were met with quiet support from his Senate allies and silence from the rest. He’d once again called for a shift in the status quo.

Las Vegas had promoted itself for decades as an entertainment capital, but in late April 1964 it was briefly the focal point of the civil rights movement with the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his own way, King was as big an attraction as any of the Strip’s celebrated crooners. He’d been named Time’s “Man of the Year” in January and played an important public role in promoting President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” program. The two speeches he gave on April 26 would be long remembered by those fortunate enough to be in attendance.

King came at the request of Las Vegas NAACP leader and civil rights activist Reverend Marion Bennett and received high-roller treatment at the Sands at a time working-class blacks still received glares and worse in some local casinos. The gambling bosses still dragged their feet when it came to hiring blacks, and some flatly refused to integrate their workforces under a cry that it was bad for business. In those days, the Clark County School District was still largely segregated, and blacks suffered greatly from a lack of affordable housing, business vitality, and institutional lending in their own community.

But, at least for one day, the power of King’s influence and celebrity eclipsed all that. With a full escort from the Clark County Sheriff ’s Office, King addressed a spirited rally of approximately 1,200 locals at the Las Vegas Convention Center and later gave a speech to the NAACP’s sold-out annual “Freedom Fund Banquet.” With tickets going for ten dollars apiece, the banquet featured Governor Grant Sawyer and Mayor Oran Gragson in attendance. Many whites attended and the local NAACP chapter membership increased in the wake of King’s call to “learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”

Like many other Westside residents and those in the community at large, Neal heeded King’s wise words, but he also understood that wishing it so would not generate the dramatic change Southern Nevada required if it was ever to achieve a semblance of racial equality. And less than four years later, after a heartbreaking April 4 evening in Memphis, the push for a holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader would begin. It would come to symbolize the greater struggle African Americans faced as the 1960s faded into the history books.

In Washington, Michigan representative John Conyers and his New York colleague Shirley Chisholm began a push for a King holiday that would take more than a decade to gain traction. They offered legislation year after year and watched it get rejected for one reason or another. In Las Vegas, the local chapter of the NAACP, with its mixed-race membership, pressed for more public respect for King’s memory. Attorney Charles Kellar and Las Vegas Democratic Party and civil rights activist Jan Smith were among the members of the committee bent on honoring King’s legacy and memory even as racial tensions simmered and boiled throughout the greater Las Vegas Valley.

There would be civil unrest, riots in local high schools, and calls for peace in the martyred King’s name. The call echoed beyond the Westside, but by the time the Legislature convened in January every other year, Nevada’s myriad other maladies and legislative priorities drowned out the argument for a King holiday.

Neal’s biennial call for a King holiday and a celebration of African- American historical contributions came like clockwork each session. Year after year he made the case for its inclusion, and he called forth historical anecdotes of the contribution of blacks to Nevada and the nation at large. And each year, for one reason or another or no stated reason at all, his voice echoed through the building and died away.

With the 1982 election to the governor’s office of his friend and fellow Democrat Richard Bryan, Neal and like-minded legislative allies gained an advocate for the King holiday.

“Last week, Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory was honored at services throughout the nation,” Bryan said in his inaugural address in January 1983. “Dr. King’s faith in the American system and belief in nonviolence as a means for bringing about change continue to serve as inspirations to us all. It is only fitting and proper we recognize his legacy. I am proposing that Nevada join the other states which have made his birthday a holiday.”

It was a memorable moment for Neal more than three decades later. “Richard Bryan called me into his office just before he went to give his State of the State,” Neal recalled. “He said he wanted me to know he was putting this into his address. He was going to ask the Legislature to approve the holiday. Prior to that time, the issue would be brought up in the Assembly and it would pass, knowing of course that it would go to the Senate and it would not pass. (Assemblyman) Gene Collins and some others were pushing it and making a big thing of it that I couldn’t get it passed in the Senate. Collins tried to make some hay out of it and ran against me and got his butt kicked. But when Governor Bryan, whom I’d gotten elected with [to the state Senate] in 1972, offered that language in his speech, it was an important moment.”

Although Bryan was a popular governor, his call for action seemed to lose traction once the Legislature began grinding bills. Efforts in ensuing years also fell short by the design of the majority. Key state senators from both sides of the aisle made it clear from their lack of passion that the King holiday was a nonstarter. Some echoed long-held sentiments that King had kept company with the Communist Party. Others simply wrote him off as not important enough to the general public to warrant such a high honor.

Everyone knew where Neal stood, and Bryan once again reminded lawmakers and members of the judiciary in the State of the State address of the importance of King’s “dream of equal opportunity for all Americans.” The governor called for $10 million from the budget to be devoted to state job training office to help unemployed Nevadans reenter the job market.

Neal considered the fact the governor raised the issue in the State of the State address a kind of success in itself, but as ever in Nevada, the wheels of progress turned slowly. Motivated state legislatures found ways to circumvent a slow-moving Congress by passing their own holidays, as Illinois did in 1973. A decade later, Congress officially recognized King’s birthday. Bowing to rising pressure from civil rights organizations, some of which assembled and marched in Washington, D.C., a compromise moved the day of recognition to the third Monday in January. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the bill making King’s birthday a federal holiday.

Other states were extremely reluctant to accept the change, including Nevada. Some Southern states insisted on also offering holidays honoring Confederate generals, and Arizona governor Evan Mecham’s first act in office in 1987 was to rescind the holiday—a stunt that generated a boycott and cost the state millions and its Super Bowl site. New Hampshire failed to mention King’s name until 1999, instead calling the holiday “Civil Rights Day.”

Bryan, easily one of Nevada’s most popular governors, found a steadfast ally in Neal on many issues—even those that appeared to be long shots for success. When Bryan’s hospital reform legislation initially got a cold reception, Neal stepped up in support of it. “I only had one commitment, and Joe Neal was the only guy I had. If he was with you, he was unshakeable,” Bryan said.

“This guy was no political weather vane. When it was popular, he was there, and when it was unpopular he was the same guy. He didn’t blow with the wind. I grew to respect him.”

After years of standing up on behalf of a holiday for Dr. King, Neal was gratified by his friend and political ally Bryan using his executive status as Nevada’s governor to declare a holiday in Nevada for the slain civil rights leader at a time other Western states, neighboring Arizona and Utah among them, were still waffling. Bryan came down to West Las Vegas and signed his order at Nucleus Plaza, which only a few years later would burn during the civil unrest related to the acquittal of Los Angeles Police Department officers involved in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. But in 1983, as Bryan remembered, “Joe Neal was there and very proud, and I gave him a pen to commemorate the signing.”

It wasn’t until 1991 that the Senate, with Republican Bill Raggio sitting as majority leader, finally ratified the King holiday into being. By then, after speaking many thousands of words about the importance of the King holiday and of African American history generally, Neal’s colleagues finally appeared to see the light—or at least recognize the absurdity of their recalcitrance. And for a rare change, Neal wasn’t the only one speaking up on behalf of the fallen civil rights leader. Suddenly—almost a decade after Bryan’s call for action—the Nevada Senate was motivated to celebrate King’s legacy.

The greatest change, it appeared, had come over Raggio, the Reno native who by 1991 was generally recognized as the most powerful man in the Legislature. Raggio’s early life experience with the South was burned in his memory. In the military in 1944, he trained at Ruston in northern Louisiana and later attended Louisiana Tech University.

In what was for Nevada’s King holiday law something of a victory lap, in 1993, Raggio listened to yet another impassioned remembrance of the civil rights leader and, when his turn came, weighed in as never before. Neal’s warning about being vigilant and not resting had clearly emotionally moved him on a relatively minor laurel. “This calls to mind, with this resolution, that we have not gone further,” he said. “Even though Joe Neal can stand here in the Senate, how did he get here? Is that progress? It could or could not be. As long as we, as people, begin to draw those circles to keep others out based upon an idea and understanding, not about humanity, but on the skin color and texture of our hair, then we have not gone very far in dealing with the dreams of Martin Luther King. But there is still hope that we, as a people, can achieve that dream.”

Raggio, so often Neal’s formidable foe, was moved to recollection. He privately would admit that, because he was Italian, he was sometimes considered more “colored” than white in the Louisiana he first experienced in the military.

“As events occurred, I was later to reflect upon the irony of the fact the parish where I first observed racism was the parish known as Lincoln Parish,” Raggio said on the floor of the Senate. “I had not been out of the State of Nevada excepting to cross over into California at that time.

“. . . My orders were cut, and I proceeded by train to northern Louisiana. I can assure you that I was shocked by what I saw there. The first thing I noticed were signs, at the railway station, indicating ‘color’ on restrooms, water fountains, and all other public facilities. This was completely foreign to me and not to be understood. Other things followed as I went into my indoctrination into this concept. People were asked to get off the street. Blacks would leave the street when a white would travel on the sidewalk. I can tell you it was a situation that left an impression on me that was to last a lifetime. I vowed, after leaving the service, that I would never be part of that process. It was demeaning, humiliating, and embarrassing to me. Over the years, on a personal note, I tried to instill that understanding and feeling into my own family and with those in which I came in contact.

“When I arrived at this Senate, in 1973, I first met a young man dark of skin, and was introduced to Senator Neal. I guess when I met him, I thought back to that experience because that attitude was still prevalent in Nevada at that time as it was throughout the country. Not to enlarge upon the very important remarks made by Senator Neal, it has now been two decades since that meeting. We were both privileged to live at the time

Reverend Martin Luther King made his memorable address, ‘I Have a Dream,’ and over the course of that time, we were privileged to watch history unfold. We’ve had great men in our times of all color. Certainly Dr. Martin Luther King’s name is on that list. . . . He sent a clear message to the effect that all men are created equal. Toward that end, we have committed ourselves in this Legislature to that ideal and that concept. I’m particularly pleased that it was this Senate, and I might add if I may that it was during the time that the Senate had a Republican majority, that we were able to finally enact the law that set forth a holiday honoring Dr. King in this state.”

For once in a very long time, Joe Neal let the defense rest.

King: “We are simply seeking to bring into full realization the American dream... a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; the dream of a land where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality—this is the dream.”

Having attended Louisiana Tech, Raggio had his own experience with the South. Although he had clashed often with Neal, they had found common ground.

Nevada native John L. Smith is a longtime journalist, author of more than a dozen books, and award-winning columnist including three decades with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In 2016, he was named to the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame and also was part of a group of reporters to receive the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics from the University of Oregon, the James Foley/Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism from Northwestern University, and the Society of Professional Journalists award for Ethics.

Smith writes a weekly column for The Nevada Independent, offers commentary on National Public Radio station KNPR, and freelances to many other publications. The father of an adult daughter, Amelia, he is married to the writer Sally Denton and makes his home in Las Vegas and outside Santa Fe, NM.

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