When Harvard Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin delivered a recent lecture at UNLV, she was ostensibly speaking about her award-winning book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford, 2012). But if you were listening for subtext, you could have learned a lot about Nevada.
Brown’s book peels back the layers of desegregation by examining the battle of Atlanta’s African-Americans against an entrenched white power structure. It also examines the internal struggles within the black community. She focuses not on the icons of the movement, but the foot soldiers, who often marched in a different direction. This story should be familiar to those interested in Nevada’s history, too—not to mention its present.
At her lecture, Brown-Nagin described differences in Atlanta’s black community between middle-class professionals and those living in “primitive dwellings that lacked basic features” like running water. For decades, similar conditions prevailed in West Las Vegas.
In Atlanta, even some African-American educators opposed school integration. Surprised? Brown-Nagin cites “self interest,” but not in a bad way: “Those who were best positioned under segregation [had] concerns about what the future might hold, perceptions that it might not be in the best interests of the black community.”
Why? Black teachers in black schools feared that they would lose their jobs if the schools were integrated due to racist hiring practices. And they did, in Atlanta and elsewhere.
Consider Las Vegas: James McMillan, who pushed the 1960 Moulin Rouge Agreement to desegregate casinos, later questioned his success. Desegregation cost his community the capital that once had to stay there; African-Americans could go and spend where they wished, and historically black businesses suffered.
Like their Atlanta counterparts, McMillan, Bob Bailey, Charles West and other freedom fighters got desegregation and more job opportunities for African-Americans. But welfare mothers and others in lower economic strata felt differently. Trickle-down economics don’t work—federally, in Nevada or in the civil rights movement.
In Atlanta, women such as Ethel Mae Matthews, president of the local chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization, “didn’t think they had anything to lose,” Brown-Nagin said, and fought harder for integration than middle-class blacks because they saw good schools as “a mode of social mobility.” Meanwhile, activists such as Ruby Duncan looked beyond the primary human rights claims of the movement: They fought to block a purge of the welfare rolls and to improve job training and health services.
In civil rights-era Atlanta, victories never came easy, but, little by little, they came: By Georgia law, a tenant who challenged a landlord’s claim that he owed money had to put up a bond for the disputed amount and the court costs. An attorney fought the law—and lost. However, the unjust decision provoked national attention and continued protests and lobbying, and ultimately the law was changed. “This is how change occurs,” Brown-Nagin said at UNLV. “It’s more complicated than just winning a case.”
Think of the Nevada Constitution’s amendment barring gay marriage in 2002. It and similar bigoted laws are before the courts today. Even if the right side loses, 10 states and the District of Columbia have approved gay marriage—and a majority of Americans now support it. It isn’t going away.
Fighting for the right things is hard: Just ask Nevada’s human rights advocates. Or those who question our anachronistic truckling to the mining industry on taxes. Or parents and teachers who wish to hold our education administrators accountable for how they spend our money.
But as Brown-Nagin noted, “This nation was born in protest.” The struggle continues.