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Joe Neal was the first African American elected to Nevada’s Senate, a position he held for 32 years.

He served the state and Las Vegas’s often forgotten downtown Westside community and, many believe, paved the way for the state’s first black Attorney General, Aaron Ford, who was elected in November.

Of course, being first isn’t always easy. But while Neal faced many uphill battles, he was known for his outspokenness and tenacity.

John L. Smith has written a biography about Neal called "The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal's Lifelong Fight for Social Justice."  

“My first experience with Joe Neal was hearing his name around the dinner table,” Smith explained.

Smith's family was involved in union leadership and the Democratic Party in Nevada so Neal's was often a topic of conversation.

But the first time Smith met the state senator was when he was a part of a panel on integration at Smith's high school, Western High School.

“He was very clear, very informed, of course, and I was really intimidated. I think that was really the takeaway,” he said.

With Neal's humble beginnings it might have been difficult to picture him rising to the halls of power in Nevada politics. His family were sharecroppers in a small town in Louisiana.

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He grew up under the strict rules of the Jim Crow South. Smith explained that no black person had ever voted in the parish Neal grew up in. He was actually one of the first African Americans in the parish to register and vote.

One of the only ways for a young black man to get an education was to join the military and use the G.I. Bill, which is what Neal did. 

Neal joined the Air Force. 

“He saw the disparity," Smith said. "You could serve your country honorably, with distinction, and yet, you are still not accepted.”

Smith said it was that experience that defined him.

“He endeavored from that point on to step up when others were sitting down," he said, “He wasn’t always understood in Nevada politics, but I think you have that guy who has to be Teflon in order to survive. He was very, very tough in politics and generous.”

In 1954, Neal came to Las Vegas for the first time when his mother and brother came out for work. He thought, like many people, that the West would be different.

“What he found in Las Vegas in the 50s was that Las Vegas in many ways was more divided than the South that he knew because the traditions of benign neglect in the South weren’t in play in Las Vegas," Smith said.

He left Southern Nevada to finish his education and eventually came back to find work, which he did at Reynolds Electric.

Neal was first elected to office in 1972 and served for 30 years, Smith said. He focused on issues ranging from quality of life and neighborhood issues to more progressive topics like justice system reform.

“He pushed, starting very early on in his career, for the restoration of felons’ rights," Smith said.

He also worked to improve hotel safety after the devastating MGM Grand fire. He also helped to clean up Lake Tahoe, which was a fight that put him in the crosshairs of some casino operators in the area.

Smith said Neal was also involved in some fights in Carson City that seem too absurd to be true.

“Early on in his career, he actually had to argue on the floor of the Senate against a bill purposed by one of his esteemed colleagues to outlaw the carrying of what was called a cake-cutter comb. It was basically an afro comb… He had to argue to keep that from becoming – carrying that - an actionable offense,” Smith said.

At the time, no one came right out and said the proposed law was racist but Joe Neal stood up against it and he won.

Smith said Neal didn't win every fight and in fact was often the only person in the State Senate voting against something. 

It was that reputation of standing up for something he believed in no matter the political consequences that gave Neal his reputation as the Westside Slugger, a nickname given to him by Cliff Young, a future state supreme court justice and Senate colleague.

Smith said everyone knew that even if Neal took a beating on an issue he would not be down for long.

“I came to conclude that him standing up, him reminding you of your better angels that goes a long way in terms of his legacy,” Smith said.

For Neal, it wasn't about fighting for his rights as a citizen, Smith said, he already knew he had those rights. He just needed other people to recognize them.

Smith said there is no question that Neal paved the way for other politicians in Nevada.

“I don’t think there is any question that a fair accounting of his career shows emphatically that Joe Neal, beginning in the early 1970s, demanded a focus on the community that was unprecedented in those times in politics,” he said.

From Desert Companion: We Just Had To Ask: Back In The Day … Joe Neal

 

Guests

John L. Smith, Nevada Public Radio contributor, and author

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