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You Can't Live There: A Long Struggle For Black Rights In Las Vegas

A 1971 welfare rights protest on the Strip was part of the community activism that preceded a consent decree later that year that opened more Las Vegas resort industry jobs to Black workers.
UNLV Library Special Collection

A 1971 welfare rights protest on the Strip was part of the community activism that preceded a consent decree later that year that opened more Las Vegas resort industry jobs to Black workers.

Protests erupted around the country again after a Louisville grand jury refused to press charges against officers there for the shooting death of Breanna Taylor.

Taylor, an emergency room technician, was shot six times during a police raid. Her boyfriend, police say, shot at officers first and they returned fire. One officer was charged for firing his weapon wantonly into Taylor’s home.

So protests broke out, even a small one in downtown Las Vegas. Six people were reportedly arrested.

The summer protests have been questioned and examined from every angle over the last several months. That includes here, at Nevada Public Radio, where we began a series on race and racism in Nevada two months ago.

Today we present the first in that series, which examined the history of Blacks in southern Nevada, and how that racism, in various forms, remains.

(Editor's note: This discussion originally aired August 6, 2020)

Southern Nevada, like much of the country, is struggling to come to terms with racial justice.  The death of George Floyd was followed by dozens of protests in the streets of Las Vegas. 

Beyond the collective recoil at what we witnessed on video, what is happening in Las Vegas, one of the most culturally diverse cities in America? 

Hispanic students make up nearly half of the Clark County School District. UNLV ranks high for ethnic diversity. Asian immigrants have transformed the health-care sector. 

People of color fill top jobs in the Nevada Legislature. 

Are we facing a painful truth?  That diversity does not equate to social justice.  That the end of segregation has not led to a culture of anti-racism? 

Before 1960, Las Vegas was called -- by black people who moved from the South -- the Mississippi of the West. There was legal segregation and exclusion.  There was an understanding about where minorities dare not enter -- or try to live -- or apply for jobs.  

In the early 1960s, a journalist for an African-American newspaper called Vegas  “… a virtual hell-hole of racial prejudice.” 

This is the first in a series of programs that will look at Race and Racism in Nevada.


On Housing:

Claytee White: “We’re talking about redlining now. Banks would not loan in Black communities, not just Las Vegas, but all over the United States of America. Blacks could not get financing in certain areas of the city. And if you tried to buy a house outside of that area in the city, you could not get a loan. Even though Blacks were working with good jobs, people sometimes laugh and say, ‘Well, they had Buicks and Cadillacs parked in front of shacks.” Yes, you could get financing on a car of any kind but you could not get financing on a house. That redlining is still taking place today.”

“Berkley Square was constructed. And for the first time, Blacks were able to get federal backed loans. That shows how wealth in families could not be passed down because most families build wealth through their homes. If you don’t have the housing and you don’t have the loans on those houses and the equity that grows in those homes, you can’t educate your children, you can’t meet a financial obligation that someone gets sick. So, you are relegated to having less wealth and we know those statistics today are very dire.”

On the Strip:

Pastor S.S. Rogers: “I can remember Sammy Davis Jr. and they say, ‘What’s happening?’ and Frank Sinatra and all the other stars that worked on the Strip and after they finished the show on the Strip they would come to West Las Vegas to the Moulin Rouge. That is one thing I can’t understand why the Moulin Rouge failed.”

“I moved up from being a dishwasher working in a hotel as a houseman, porter, and from that, when the line broke, I think in 1969, when they first started hiring African Americans as security officers in the hotel, I was one of the first Black security officers at the Sahara hotel back in 1968. And from that, broke the ranks and we were able to get others in.”

White: “We saw the ceiling beginning to crack just a tiny bit. Rev. Rogers just talked about the Sahara and how that hotel began to hire some people just before that 1971 Consent Decree. That’s when the hiring started. 1966, when Caesars Palace opened, it opened with the first two Black cocktail waitresses and the first Black bartender. We began to see it happen gradually, but 1971 is the time period where all of the casinos – there were about 17 mentioned by name in the Consent Decree that had to open up job categories… 12 percent of the jobs had to open for Blacks.”

On recent Black Lives Matter protests:

Leslie Turner: “I think just what Dr. White was saying about calling it a riot versus a revolution because that’s something that we’re going through right now where it’s like: ‘Rioters are doing this, and rioters are that.’ It’s actually no rioting that’s occurring. It is people who are ultimately just fed up in various ways that are exercising their right to be out in the streets in protest. As far as breaking laws, most of us have just blocked traffic. That’s literally the extent to which people have actually broken laws.”  

“The Mass Liberation Project is a project that focuses on mass incarceration but through a lot of different avenues. So, voting is just one aspect of it. We took over 100 formerly incarcerated justice-impacted people to the [State] Capitol to lobby for AB431, which was the bill that passed that restored voting rights for people coming out of prison. This was 2019. That went into effect July 1 and since then we’ve just been trying to register people who others might think that they still can’t vote or are not aware of what happened.”

On White Supremacy:

Turner: I think I really have to explain that when I say: ‘white supremacy’ that isn’t necessarily synonymous with white people. It is an ideology. It’s a structure that all of us have been indoctrinated with not just white people, not just Black people. We all suffer from brainwashing to a certain extent of just – white is superior. That is what I mean when I say ‘white supremacy’ and then really understanding how white supremacy has guided legislation and how those laws and policies have impacted us as Black people. I think that’s what I mean when I say ‘white supremacy.’ It is a phrase that people might feel some type of way about but it's just the truth.”

White: I just want to mention that white privilege is one of the underlying effects, one of the underlying causes of white supremacy. And that white privilege most people don’t even understand what that does for somebody whose skin is light, a lighter complexion. That gives you privileges and those privileges are real.

The Black Lives Matter Movement:

Korey Tillman: I think it is fair to say the movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement is centralized in some aspects but is really amorphous and decentralized in terms of who the leader is and it is more based on locale. I think that it’s important.  We always talk a Mandela, or in the U.S., we might talk about Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X or Fred Hampton, who were all assassinated or being in prison at some point – but we often don’t talk about the Winnie Mandelas or the Marsha P. Johnsons, the Catherine Cleavers – the people who are femme, trans or nonbinary individuals who are in the fight pushing things forward.

Lessons from the Anti-Apartheid Movement:

Tillman: I think the big lesson is continuing to fight for abolition… and the anti-Apartheid movement also did this as well, they had a coalition for the diaspora. I think continuing to work and recognize that these things are happening Jamaica, they’re happening all over the Caribbean, all over the world and keeping that in our purview would understand that this fight isn’t just located in Southern Nevada, the U.S., North America. It is really a global fight.”

On reparations:

Tillman: “I think that has to be part of this abolition, part of this reconciliation is that the folly is to say, ‘hey, we can give economic programs but we really need to redistribute the wealth in this country in order to even have a true reconciliation.”

Turner: “Definitely I’m a yes on reparations. I believe that Black people not only here but also globally should unify and build alliance to fight for reparations in our respective countries throughout the diaspora. That is something that I also think is mass liberation and I think that we in this country tend to just address an issue and then move on from it and we never actually address the harm that was caused and the residual impact of that harm.”  

On anti-racist:

Tillman: I think it is often used as a buzzword or a phrase where people can just say ‘I’m anti-racist’ and put a sticker on their bumper but anti-racism or being anti-racist is not just a phrase. It’s more so how do you live your life and continue to challenge the racism that is indoctrinated in all of us.

On the late Congressman John Lewis:

Rogers: To look at what he has done in his lifetime to come, not just for Blacks, but he’s looking at the whole concept of everybody. And a lot of people benefit from what we have done. We often say that a lot of people are riding on the backs of the Blacks. We build everything. We get out and are doing everything but then other people reaping some of those benefits… I think we all need to look at the concept and what we need to do is continue to do those things - the good… regardless, you’re going to be victimized. You’re going to be talked about regardless if you do nothing or you do something.

White: John Lewis to me was that example. He was not afraid. This man just a few inches taller than I am, and I'm very short, but his courage was just phenomenal. I think he set an example for all of us. No matter who we are there is something we can do. When we talk about systemic racism, I don't care who you are. I don't care what color you are. We all have work to do.    

The series is made possible with support from Wynn Las Vegas. 

Claytee White , the director of the Oral History Research Center, UNLV Libraries; ​ S.S. Rogers , pastor-teacher, the Greater Mount Sinai Baptist Church;  Leslie Turner, co-founder, The Mass Liberation Project;  Korey Tillman, Ph.D. candidate focusing on police conduct/policies, UNLV, 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.