LAS VEGAS (Feb. 2) — Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who last month apologized for privately praising President Barack Obama‘s lack of a “Negro dialect,” posted a Black History Month essay on his Web site Monday in which he takes credit for racial integration in Las Vegas.
One problem: Some local black leaders and historians don’t remember him having had a significant role in that effort and the senator himself made no reference to it in his 2008 memoir.
In the essay, which was also published as an opinion piece for the black-issues Web site The Grio under Harry Reid’s byline, the Senate majority leader wrote: “I worked hard during my time in local politics in Nevada to integrate the Las Vegas strip [sic] and the gaming industry.”
Yet Joe Neal, a former Democratic state senator who was a key figure in the civil rights movement in Nevada, was baffled by the claim. For one thing, Reid was only 20 when a famous 1960 meeting between casino owners, progressive government officials and NAACP leaders resulted in an accord to integrate Las Vegas casinos for customers.
The Nevada Legislature passed a civil rights act in 1965, but Reid did not become a member of that body until his 1966 election as an assemblyman. And a federal court decree in 1971 that set quotas for the hiring of minority casino workers was negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice and handed down just months after he was sworn in as lieutenant governor.
Reid spokesman Jon Summers responded to questions about the claim with a one-sentence e-mail: “He and Mike O’Callaghan worked together as governor and lieutenant governor to apply pressure on business leaders to integrate the industry.” Reid served as lieutenant governor under O’Callaghan for one term, from 1971 to 1974, before leaving the post for his first, unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.
When pressed for specifics, Summers pointed to a Politico piece from June 2008 in which Reid told a journalist he helped negotiate the 1971 settlement that required casinos to begin hiring blacks in hotel casino jobs other than as maids and porters.
“I don’t recall him being involved in any of that,” said Neal, the first black state senator and first black gubernatorial nominee from a major party when the Democrat lost in 2002. He attended several meetings related to the federal settlement and was heavily involved as the state’s top elected black official. “I don’t think he would have an involvement” in the federal court decree.
Historians who have studied the era were similarly uncertain to what Reid referred. A 2004 doctoral dissertation [pdf] by sociologist Jeffrey J. Sallaz specifically examined the outcome of that federal decree and didn’t reference either O’Callaghan or Reid. Instead, Sallaz laid out the history as a tussle between federal authorities and casino executives.
Eugene Moehring, whose chapter on racial integration in his 2000 book “Resort City in the Sunbelt” makes no mention of Reid, said he’s willing to assume Reid, as an O’Callaghan protégé, may have been involved in some capacity because O’Callaghan was a staunch advocate of equal rights. Yet of Reid, Moehring said, “No, he was not a big official doing big things.”
Rainier Spencer, who founded the Afro-American studies program and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, went further: “It’s sort of like Al Gore inventing the Internet. Politicians say strange things.”
Reid’s 2008 memoir, “The Good Fight,” does not mention his possible involvement in the civil rights struggle of that era. The words “integration” and “African-American” do not appear anywhere in the book, and the only reference to black people is a recollection of Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color barrier and an instance where he defended a black man accused in a robbery-homicide whose case no other attorney would take. Others, including Neal, credited Reid for doing pro bono work for black clients as a young lawyer, but Reid’s office did not mention that in explaining the claim in the Black History Month essay.
Reid, who is trailing badly in polls assessing his chances for re-election to a fifth term this year, is under scrutiny on racial issues after confirming an account in the political tome “Game Change” that he privately described then-Sen. Barack Obama as “light skinned” and having “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” in 2008. The senator apologized for the remark and the White House issued a statement reaffirming its support for its top ally in the Senate.
That recent flap makes Las Vegas CityLife editor and liberal political pundit Steve Sebelius wonder how Reid’s staff could open the vulnerable senator up to this questionable claim.
“To have something like this come up in that context is, for him, pretty dicey, because this is something people are paying attention to now,” Sebelius said. “Joe Neal was there. He was a pioneer in those struggles. I would trust people who were involved in that.”
Republicans vying to unseat Reid were only too eager to make hay out of the situation. Businessman Danny Tarkanian, ahead by eight points against Reid in a Review-Journal poll taken last month, said the Black History Month essay was a ham-fisted effort to try to make up for the “Negro dialect” remark.
“He’s making these comments because he understands that he has offended those in the African-American race, so he wants to give himself more credit than he deserves,” said Tarkanian, son of legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. “He’s making one outlandish statement after the other, and I don’t think he feels it’ll ever catch up with him.”
Neal was quick to note that as a U.S. senator, Reid’s record on diversity is impressive. This may explain why the state’s black leadership quickly accepted his apology for the “Negro dialect” comment and why his latest remarks are unlikely to dampen enthusiasm for him, said NAACP Las Vegas President Frank Hawkins.
Yet Hawkins said Reid does need to sell himself to the black business community, which is feeling slighted as it pursues building contracts from local governmental entities and credit from banks.
“They ask, ‘What has Sen. Reid or anybody else done for us?’ ” Hawkins said. “That’s what the people want to ask. It’s not what did he do back then, it’s going to be what has Sen. Reid done for minority business folks.”
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