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‘We looked at what was best for the community’

April 16, 2018 by  
Filed under Community


Otis Harris

‘We looked at what was best for the community’

Pioneering Nevada resident Otis Harris has lived in the Historic Westside area of Las Vegas for more than 50 years. Las Vegas Black Image Magazine recently asked him to reflect on African-American political progress and changes in the half-century since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

When did you run for political office in Nevada?

I and Helen Anderson ran for the Nevada Assembly back in 1968, and we were the first African-Americans to run for a statewide office in Nevada. Bishop Cox endorsed me. I had just gotten out of the Navy and came home to Las Vegas and the community was looking for someone to run for office. They had just opened up the legislature for blacks to be able to run.

What were some of the differences back then from the way the political process is today?

When you ran for political office back then, it was at-large. We didn’t have districts at the time. Hank Greenspun, who owned the Sun Newspaper, asked me to run for the State Assembly seat. His newspaper endorsed me and every other group and organization endorsed me. But I had just returned home from the military and my wife was pregnant at the time. I realized that if I got elected to the political seat I would be away from home six to seven months a year. So, I stepped out of the race to be home with my wife who needed me most. All of the big politicians would come by my house and there was a real sense of community. Community icons Bob Bailey and his wife Anna, who owned and operated the Sugar Hill Lounge in West Las Vegas, also gave me a major fundraiser — and invited Sammy Davis Jr., who attracted a major crowd and media.

Otis Harris and Bishop Cox in 1968.

How would you describe the political environment in West Las Vegas in the late 1960’s?

It was completely different — the whole black community would rally and galvanize around one candidate to represent us. We had a purpose and organizations such as the NAACP and everyone worked together to see the change we wanted. Now, you have hand-picked people to run for a political seat. We never had the infighting within the community that I see today. To me, today’s black political environment in Las Vegas is destructive — and it appears that some people want to make sure no other black candidates running for office is successful. Rather than coming together as a community to win a political seat, today you see many African Americans running for the same office, causing a split in the black vote. Back in the late 1960s and ‘70s, we didn’t look outside of the community for representation — we looked at what was best for the community.

Do you think segregation played a positive role with keeping the black community together in Las Vegas?

Yes, it was because we lived together and we depended on one another. Now, you don’t have a community any more. As a matter of fact, all the talented people who really had a positive economic vision for the Historic Westside and its residents are either dead, left the community, or went somewhere else. We have been “Willie Lynched” in our community. The black leadership in the community was slowly being killed off. So, when people talked about who you should vote for — be it Democratic or Republican — I would tell people the Willie Lynch system was really set up by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party was more independent.

We were a lot more successful in the black community with leadership development. There are blacks elected into office nowadays, but many try to hold you in a particular direction — instead of letting your wings spread free to serve the community.


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