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Nevada's Role In Civil Rights Act, Part II

Last week, we talked about the civil rights movement and Nevada’s role in it. Around the time of the march in Selma in March 1965, Nevada’s legislature dealt with civil rights at the local level. There was no violence and a lot less fanfare than in Selma. But half a century later, it remains an important moment in our state’s history.

When the state legislature met in 1965, it faced a question that a lot of states had to address: how to deal with civil rights at the local level. For the first time in many years, Nevada had a Democratic legislature, thanks to the 1964 Democratic landslide led by Lyndon Johnson. That gave Governor Grant Sawyer, an advocate of civil rights, more breathing room than before.

A Democratic assemblyman, Mel Close, Junior, introduced Assembly Bill Number 404 on February 23, with Vernon Bunker, another Clark County Democrat who was majority leader. The summary was simple: “prohibits discrimination in public accommodations or in employment based on race, color, religion or national origin.” The rest of the bill was less simple. It defined “place of public accommodation” as any establishment offering lodging with at least five rooms available, a place that served food or drink, a gas station, and an entertainment venue. It would be a misdemeanor for anyone who denied service or, the bill said, “intimidates, threatens, coerces,” or attempts to do any of those to someone entitled to service. The bill also gave more power to the Nevada Commission on Equal Rights.

When the Assembly Judiciary Committee debated the bill, the members made some amendments. A couple of committee members wanted to eliminate the state equal rights commission, period. That effort failed, but they discussed just how much power the commission should have. The bill came out of the committee and passed on the floor 34 to 2—a Humboldt County Republican and a Nye County Democrat voting against.

Then it went to the state senate, where there were some more amendments. When it went to the floor, Rene Lemaire of Battle Mountain recounted how when he “listened to the pleadings of the Negro people to a situation which existed, and after the testimony was given by those people, I was so disheartened that the people of our State would give such a bad time to those people that I returned to a committee room and cried like a baby.” But, he said, he felt the federal government had taken the necessary steps in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, he said, “I can’t of my own heart and conscience vote for the bill or against the bill,” so he decided to abstain. James Slattery, a Storey County Republican who had long opposed civil rights legislation, said, “According to the way the Congress of the United States are ordering mandates to the people of this country it isn’t going to be long before we lose all our rights of freedom. I am not going to ask you to vote ‘no’ on this bill. I am just going to ask you to vote your conscience.”

The senators and their consciences voted for the bill, twelve to four with one abstention. A conference committee resolved a minor disagreement, and the bill went on to be signed by Governor Sawyer. Nevada’s Civil Rights Act of 1965 took effect—a step into what Hubert Humphrey once called the bright sunshine of human rights.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities