They called him the Westside Slugger. The nickname fit Joe Neal. He could throw a punch, but he also could take one.
Neal was Nevada’s first Black state senator, serving for eight terms. He was the first Black major party candidate for governor. He died on New Year’s Eve at age eighty-five … a rich and full life.
Joseph M. Neal, Junior was born on July 28, 1935, in Mound, Louisiana, near Tallulah. From that nearby mill town, numerous African Americans moved to southern Nevada during World War II to work at Basic Magnesium and then in casinos. Neal joined the migration in 1954 after he graduated from high school. Then he joined the Air Force, graduated from Southern university on the G.I. Bill, and returned to southern Nevada. He ended up spending most of his career at Reynolds Electrical and Engineering, a major contractor at the Nevada Test Site. He was a longtime compliance officer, making sure REECO was in line with civil rights laws.
Neal fought for civil rights on his own time, too. He was on the Economic Opportunity Board of Clark County. He worked with the NAACP, and fought for the consent decree that required Las Vegas hotel-casinos to hire more people of color. He pushed building and trade unions to desegregate. He ran for the legislature a couple of times and expected to lose, but promoted voter registration along the way. One of his issues when he ran was the need for a public defender to represent those who could not afford an attorney. Ultimately, district judge John Mowbray sought a grant to fund such an office, and Clark County’s first public defender turned out to be yours truly.
Neal lobbied in 1971 when the state legislature had to redistrict itself. He pushed Democrats and republicans alike for districts where a Black candidate would have a chance. The result was a state senate district centered on West Las Vegas. He won the seat in 1972, beating republican Woodrow Wilson, Nevada’s first Black assemblyman.
He was a strong advocate for his causes. He became an expert in legislative rules, and used them well. He staunchly backed the Equal Rights Amendment. He drove the legislature to support the holiday honoring Martin Luther King. He was an early advocate of restoring the rights of ex-felons. He helped get rid of pay toilets, which were profitable but also a real problem for poor people. He was one of many who worked hard to protect that jewel, Lake Tahoe, and its environment. He helped obtain more funding for public libraries.
He also played a key role in making Las Vegas a safer place for everyone. Within a couple of months forty years ago, deadly fires struck at the original MGM Grand, now Bally’s, and the Hilton, now the Westgate. There were no sprinkler systems. Neal chaired the state senate committee that dealt with the issue and produced what was then one of the best fire safety programs around, with retrofitting and sprinklers.
Sometimes Joe Neal was a lone dissenter. Sometimes he had sharp elbows. In the end, he is deservedly remembered as an influential pioneer, a formidable presence, and an important legislator. And he got to see his daughter Dina end up in his old state senate seat. He earned his rest; he certainly never rested in life.