The Rev. Marion D. Bennett Sr., former Nevada assemblyman and defender of civil rights who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s and founded the first black Methodist church in Las Vegas, has died.
He was 80 years old.
The news of Bennett’s death came as a blow to those who knew him — from those who heard him preach about love and equality from the pulpit to those who were simply his friends.
“I’m terribly saddened,” wrote one of those friends, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “Marion fought hard to ensure equal rights for all, and his legacy will surely continue to inspire generations of Nevada’s youth. My thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.”
Bennett died of a heart attack at 2 a.m. Sunday, according to the Clark County coroner’s office.
He was a three-term branch president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Las Vegas and a Democratic assemblyman from 1973 to 1983. He was born on May 31, 1933. He attended high school in Greenville, S.C.
Bennett, one of 11 children, struck out on his own after high school, earning a bachelor’s degree at Morris Brown College in Atlanta and a master’s in divinity at the Interdenominational Center in Atlanta.
He even crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search for a greater understanding of God, studying at the Ecumenical Institute at Chateau de Bossey near Celigny, Switzerland.
Bennett’s path led to Las Vegas, where, at the age of 27, he put down his roots. There he turned the Zion United Methodist Church into one of the most popular religious venues in town from 1960 to 2003, growing its congregation from 30 people to thousands. Then he was pastor of the Zion Independent Methodist Church.
For more than 50 years, he served the poor communities in Las Vegas, talked openly about segregation amid racial tension on what was then the West Side, and the promise of desegregation in the early 1970s. He also established one of Nevada’s oldest and most inexpensive day care facilities next to his church.
Wendell Williams, who beat Bennett by a mere 20 votes for District 6 seat in 1986 on the Democratic primary ticket, said Bennett was one of the most intellectually formidable candidates he had ever faced.
“He’s always been a leader of the community, and the fact that he stayed here in Las Vegas, I think, is proof of just how valuable he was to the Methodist Church,” said Williams, 63. “Methodist preachers usually move around a lot, but not the Rev. Bennett.
“Once he got here, he was here to stay, and if you look around and talk to the people, you’ll see that he left quite a legacy.”
One such legacy is his daughter, Karen Bennett-Haron, who became the first African-American justice of the peace in Nevada.
Bennett fought hard to get the Equal Rights Commission established in Nevada in 1973 when he was in the Assembly. The commission helped pave the way for black Americans to have an equal opportunity in life and in their careers.
It was no mystery, then, that he won the post five terms, serving a total of 10 years.
Said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.:
“From South Carolina to Nevada, Reverend Marion Bennett was a passionate advocate for equal rights and a well-respected leader in our community. Reverend Bennett will be deeply missed. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this time.”
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at email@example.com or 702-224-5512.