Civil Rights and Liberties in Nevada
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Chapter Three Civil Rights and Liberties in Nevada Civil rights are generally defined as those“positive acts of government designed to protect persons against arbitrary or discriminatory treatment by government, or individuals.”1 Civil rights include those we deem necessary for equality to prevail among and between citizens: the right to vote, for example, and the right to equal employment and housing regardless of sex,race,color,creed,or religion. Civil liberties, on the other hand, refer to “negative restraints” upon the government in its exercise of power.2 Included here would be those rights normally found in a bill of rights,such as the freedoms of speech,press,and religion.In this chapter we shall examine the past and present of Nevada’s record on civil rights and liberties, a record that is at times sad and at other times cause for jubilation. Civil Rights Nevada, like most states, has a mixed and sometimes pitiful historical record in protecting the civil rights of its citizens. Indeed, for many years, the state was referred to as “the Mississippi of the West.” Although that sobriquet was neither entirely justified nor entirely wrong, the state’s treatment of minorities does not, unfortunately, always suggest the actions of an enlightened populace or government. The roots of discrimination against ethnic,religious,and other minorities run deep in Nevada history. The Declaration of Rights that forms the first article of the Nevada Constitution states that “all men are by Nature free and equal and have certain inalienable rights.” Yet even the men who wrote those words did not necessarily believe that they applied to all men, and most assuredly not to women. For example, delegates to the 1864 constitutional convention, the very convention at which those awe-inspiring words were written and adopted, also agreed upon Article 2, which gave the right to vote to white males only. Indeed, Nelson E. Murdock, one of these delegates, noted during the convention’s deliberations over the issue of voting rights that“I think theAnglo-Saxon,the Celtic, or any other of the White or Caucasian races, is a far superior race of men to the Indian, the Negro, or any of the colored races. . . .Why should we condescend to make any of the inferior races our equals?”3 The irony of the convention’s actions on the issue of voting rights in the face of both its previous high-sounding 28 rhetoric and the fact that Nevada was born in the midst of a civil war over the issue of slavery apparently never occurred to the delegates. Although politically incorrect by today’s standards, Murdock’s speech before the convention delegates represented nothing more than a continuation of the attitudes that had existed in the territory for some time. In one of its first acts, the Nevada Territorial Legislature, meeting in 1861, provided that “no black person, or mulatto, or Indian, or Chinese” would be allowed to give evidence in court either in favor of or against any white person, presumably because they were considered untrustworthy. Similarly, the legislature prohibited cohabitation with“Indians,Chinese,or negroes [sic]”and made a breach of that law punishable by either a fine or a jail term.Things were little better after the granting of statehood, when the state legislature amended the law to allow blacks, but not Indians or Chinese, to testify against a white person. Civil Rights and Liberties in Nevada 29 American Indian or Alaska Native Black or African American Asian Other Reporting 2 or More Races White table 3.1 Racial Diversity in Nevada, 2010 Census White 76.2 Black or African American 7.7 Asian 6.6 American Indian or Alaska Native 1.2 Other 4.5 Reporting 2 or More Races 3.3 Source: United States Census Bureau, 2010. Note that Hispanics constitute 26.5 percent of the state’s population but are not indicated separately in this table because they may be of any race. Total does not sum to 100 due to rounding. Native Americans Although virtually all minorities in the United States have been discriminated against at one time or another, Native Americans have arguably been the only group targeted for genocide. As noted in chapter 1, prehistoric peoples entered the Great Basin as early as 12,000 years ago via a land bridge between Asia and North America at the present site of the Bering Strait near Alaska. Those who settled in present-day Nevada eventually came to be known as...