(Editor's Note: This interview originally aired Feb. 8, 2021. The Clark County Commission voted unanimously to rename McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas after former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.)
The effort to change the name of McCarran International Airport has taken flight again.
At its meeting next week, the Clark County Commission is expected to vote on renaming the airport in honor of former Sen. Harry Reid.
The airport — the world’s 30th-busiest — is currently named for Patrick McCarran, who represented Nevada in the Senate from the New Deal to the 1950s. His career was marked by racial and religious intolerance.
"Looking around the country and what's happening, I think it's very comparable to taking Robert E. Lee's statue out of Virginia," said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, "We're talking about historic figures who, at the time, may have been historic and important, but looking back on history, they were divisive, they were bigoted, they were inappropriate and that's what McCarran was."
McCarran was a defense attorney, who took on some of the poorest hard-luck people. He then became a Nevada Supreme Court judge and a strong defender of civil liberties.
But he changed with time. He wrote legislation and led committees to ferret out communists during the 1950s red scare. He became one of the most disliked senators in the country.
Tyler Parry is an assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at UNLV. He said the anti-communist movement was about more than just finding communists in the government.
"The movement [McCarran] was involved in - stamping out communism - was directly engaged and embedded within these broader campaigns to stamp out what were perceived as Black radical movements or Black communist movements," Parry said, "He was certainly involved in this very troubling and racist era in the United States where the most marginalized people, the most underrepresented groups, were being intentionally stamped out."
Segerblom is pushing the effort to change McCarran International Airport to Harry Reid International Airport. Segerblom said naming the airport after McCarran is not in harmony with the city's past and future.
"He was very, very anti-Semitic, and of course, this town was really built on the Jewish community," he said, "The fact that that name would be the name you think of when you come to Las Vegas is totally incongruous with the Jewish leadership that really founded the gaming industry and the Strip and continues today."
Segerblom said having the McCarran name attached to the airport of one of the most diverse cities in the country is the opposite of what the Las Vegas Valley is.
The commissioner would like to rename the airport after former Senator Reid because of who Reid is as a person and because of the myriad of things he's done for the state and the city of Las Vegas.
"He is someone who has really had one foot in the old Nevada. He was born and raised in Searchlight, a small mining town, and then ended up being the second most powerful person in the world," he said.
Segerblom also pointed out that Reid helped secure the funding for Terminal 3 at the airport. He also helped with the creation of Great Basin National Park and helped save Pyramid Lake in Northern Nevada.
Reid is also credited with helping save MGM Resorts from bankruptcy during the Great Recession.
Segerblom said the former senator is an example of someone who grew with a changing Nevada, not against it.
"I think McCarran started out with good intentions but ended up as a cruel, bigoted old man," he said, "Whereas, Harry Reid started out as a poor boy from Searchlight and ended up as a very cosmopolitan person who promoted diversity, loved diversity and loved his state."
Senator Reid’s history with minorities isn’t perfect. In 2010, it was revealed that he once said Barack Obama would fare well in the presidential race because he was a light-skinned African-American with no “Negro dialect.” Reid apologized, Obama forgave him and the two forged an unbreakable bond with each other.
Parry said the comment should be condemned and critiqued but it is not the same as some of the actions taken by Pat McCarran in regards to people of color and the Jewish community.
"The distinction between the two is that Pat McCarran used his power within the federal government to legislate against people," he said, "He not only held bigoted views, but he used his position to actually further marginalize, systemically, people who are under-represented and marginalized in the United States."
Parry said that, as far as we know, Sen. Reid never did that. Instead, the former senator supported different efforts to elevate marginalized people.
Segerblom agreed, and while he condemned the comment, he said simply that Senator Reid is on the right side of history and Pat McCarran was on the wrong side of history.
There is no clear indication that the commission will actually vote to request a name change, but for Parry, changing the name of an airport should not be the main focus.
"The symbolic gesture of renaming the airport is fine, but I think people want a lot more than that and they want systemic change," he said.
Tick Segerblom, commissioner, Clark County Commission; Tyler Parry, assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies, UNLV
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