CARSON CITY — Barriers have been broken and doors opened for African-Americans in Nevada and across the country since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but much work remains to be done, state lawmakers said as they reflected on the day set aside to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s a day to celebrate,” said Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas. “While we have a distance to go in a lot of areas, we’ve come a long ways. It’s not the time to rest on our laurels. We have to work hard to move forward.”
State Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, said that because King’s message of equality is inclusive of all people, regardless of ethnicity or sexual orientation, she is particularly pleased about the Legislature’s action on two measures in 2013.
The bill adding transgender individuals to the laws enhancing penalties for hate crimes, and the movement toward marriage equality, are all about civil rights, she said.
“Civil rights includes equality for everyone,” Spearman said. “I think we have made tremendous strides toward the down payment on the dream, but we have a long ways to go.”
Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, said there is much to celebrate but many challenges.
“Politically we’ve made some significant ground,” he said. “But from the recovery standpoint it has been difficult. The community was the first to see the depression, and we’re the last to recover.”
Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas, said he will celebrate proudly today when, for the first time, he is in the Las Vegas King parade rather than assisting in other ways, although he is quick to note that King’s real birthday is Jan. 15.
“Of course we need to celebrate,” he said. “I think Dr. King would be proud of our accomplishments. But there is so much more work to do.”
Former state Sen. Joe Neal said he appreciates the gains made by African-Americans in political office, as well as the fact that the last vestiges of segregation that once existed in Las Vegas are almost entirely gone.
But one political barrier that still exists is electing an African-American candidate to statewide office, he said. The one exception is the election of Michael Douglas to the Nevada Supreme Court.
“So things are much better than they were five or six years ago or even 10 or 12 years ago for that matter,” Neal said. We still have to overcome the statewide office situation, but that will come around.”
Neal, who ran for governor in 1998 and 2002, served in the state Senate from 1972 to 2004.
Lawmakers point to a number of recent accomplishments in the community as reasons to be optimistic on the holiday.
Horne in 2013 became the first African-American majority leader in the Nevada state Assembly.
The recent nomination of Richard Boulware by President Barack Obama to become a federal judge is another positive development. If confirmed, Boulware, a Las Vegas native, would be the first African-American man to serve on the U.S. District Court in Nevada.
Johnnie Rawlinson of Las Vegas became the first African-American on the U.S. District Court in Nevada when she was appointed in 1997. She now sits on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco.
Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., in 2012 became the first African-American member of Congress from Nevada.
The North Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday also named interim City Attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan to the permanent position. She is believed to be the first African-American in Nevada history to assume a city attorney post, Horne said.
Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, in 2012 became the first African-American woman elected to the state Assembly.
Former state Assemblyman Wendell Williams, who is chairman of the Las Vegas Martin Luther King Parade, said many challenges remain in the community, including those related to employment and student graduation.
“A lot of it has to do with the individual person, but some of it is due to society woes,” he said. “Our theme is ‘wake up and live the dream.’ People talk about it. Let’s wake up and live it.”
Williams, who recalls voting for the bill to establish the Martin Luther King holiday in Nevada in 1987, said he has seen some recent improvement in the African-American community.
“There is more activism,” he said. “Business opportunities have improved. But it’s not where it should be.”
Neal, the former state senator, said he recalls the King holiday vote as well. The bill passed the Assembly and was not expected to win Senate approval, but GOP Sens. Bill Raggio and Ray Rawson both supported the measure, sending it to then-Gov. Richard Bryan for his signature.
Horne said unemployment remains a stubborn problem among African-Americans, and job creation is the key to helping the community move forward.
The state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation has data showing that the jobless rate for African-Americans was 15.3 percent as of November 2013, compared with 11 percent for Hispanics and 8.8 percent for whites. The African-American rate was an improvement from a year earlier, however, when it was at 17.5 percent.
“More jobs would be better for everybody,” Horne said. “Like I’ve said before, we will likely be one of the last states to rise. Even with the conventions and tourism, people are not spending as much money as they normally would have. It will be a slow ride.”
Atkinson said African-Americans were some of the hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis as well.
Thompson agreed, saying the foreclosure crisis is not over in his district.
“We need to ensure families remain whole,” he said. “We need jobs. We need quality schools and quality teachers, and we have to give them adequate pay.”
Thompson pointed to another bright spot in his District 17: a successful effort by community leaders and law enforcement to reduce crime. Called the Safe Village Initiative, it is focused on the 89106 zip code and is making a difference, he said.
But the fiscal woes of North Las Vegas continue to be a major concern, he said.
There have been some successful efforts to foster more job creation in the state that would benefit all Nevadans. One victory is the recent decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to designate Nevada one of the six sites for drone development and testing.
Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, was successful in getting a bill passed in 2013 to provide tax credits to film companies that will work in Nevada in an effort to create more jobs.
Atkinson said he is pleased that the Legislature saw fit last year to establish the Legislative Committee on Energy, which will look at alternative energy development possibilities in between legislative sessions.
Energy development has huge potential in Nevada for job creation, and now lawmakers will be able to discuss the possibilities year-round rather than in legislative sessions that last only 120 days, he said.
“There is no reason why Nevada should not be the leader or one of the leaders in renewable energy,” Atkinson said.
Spearman said she is looking forward to the 2015 session to move ahead in a number of areas, including helping veterans who have come back from Afghanistan return to civilian life. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, the freshman lawmaker is serving on the Legislative Committee on Senior Citizens, Veterans and Adults with Special Needs — groups that need a voice, she said.
Spearman also is looking into ways to help promote entrepreneurs in Nevada as a way of creating jobs.
“How do we tap into that and encourage it?” she said. “A lot of it has to do with money, and people with great ideas don’t always have access to it.”
Horne, who is leaving the Assembly because of term limits and is seeking a Clark County judicial position, said he is confident that the Legislature and its African-American Caucus, as well as leaders in the community, are poised to continue to make positive changes for African-Americans and Nevada as a whole.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.