Joe Neal: If it is not good for the people, it is not good for me

More than an armchair historian, Joe Neal honors the multitudes within him, visiting classrooms and holding talks about the presence of Indigenous Americans on this soil and in his veins. He also honors the multitudes he has served in the legislature over the course of a career spanning 32 years. In that time, he held his ground on the floor of the Nevada State Senate, fighting for equal access to jobs, housing and treatment under the law for his constituents. Born in Tallulah, Louisiana, a graduate in political science and law from Southern University, and a veteran of an Air Force Command in Research, his strategic, often covert work building cases for the Federal Justice Department led to his becoming the first Black citizen to successfully register to vote in his home parish since Reconstruction. Elected in 1972, he was Nevada’s first Black state senator, rising to Minority Floor leader and President pro temp. His biography, The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice by journalist John L. Smith has recently been published. His daughter, Dina Neal, is a Nevada Assemblywoman serving District 7.


I went to work for Reynolds Electrical Engineering Company in February of 1966 as a compliance officer. Now I was in a position to help Black folks get jobs, and to investigate why they did not get jobs. It was a godsend becaue I drew a company that had a very good manager who wanted to do something. We had the Hilton hotel out on Paradise; they used to call it the International. It was being built that year and we had a contract with the electrical engineering union to supply us with electricians. But this is one of the unions that didn’t have any Blacks. And so, [my boss] called me in one day and said, “Joe, we’ve got eight requisitions here. I think you know what to do.” And I said, “Yessir, I do.” I took those eight requistions and I came into the Black community and found all those guys I knew that had skills. I put ‘em all in the car to take them down to the electrical union. Legal counsel asked me, “Joe, what are you going to do with these people?” I said, “I’m gonna take them down to the union.” He said, “Well, the union’s gonna strike.” I said, “Striking’s your problem. Equal opportunity is mine.” I ran for the state assembly in ’64, for the state senate in ‘66, and again for the assembly in 1970. Why this? I knew I couldn’t get elected, but sometimes you’ve got to make yourself the victim in order to make an appeal. Now in 1970, I decided to run again, but this time I campaigned just in the Black community. I ran for the senate and we had a guy who just had moved from New York, in the early ‘60s by the name of Charles R. Kellar, you probably heard about him. Charlie Kellar told me, says, “Joe, why don’t you just withdraw and let me run. I say, “Why don’t you just go head and run. It’s open for everybody. May the best man win.” That’s my position. He didn’t run. I looked up and it was just me and Woody Wilson. All the money bets were on Woody. I didn’t get any money for that race — 500.00 — two hundred dollars of that money came from a casino owner by the name of Jackie Gaughn, the rest of it was mine. I didn’t let the cats tell me what to do. I’d listen to them, if I found anything wrong with it, I’d say look, read what the Constitution says. It says, “We the people of the State of Nevada.” We pass laws in the name of the people of the state of Nevada. If it’s not good for the people, then it’s not good for me. You can tell me about your issue, if it’s not for the people, I’m not going for it. That’s the position I held all the way through. And I stayed there until I got ready to leave. If we’re going to accept the Constitution, then we better damn sure get out there and fight for what it believes.


Photo Credit:

Jeff Scheid of Jeff Scheid Photography

Special Exhibit: Obsidian and Neon