Unearthed Chapter of Racial Unrest: Las Vegas’s Explosive 1969 Story Revealed

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Unearthed from the annals of history is a chilling episode, almost forgotten, from the turbulent days of 1969 in the historically Black neighborhood of West Las Vegas. Echoes of anguish rise amid the sizzle of Molotov cocktails, the fracturing of window glass, and the crumpling carcasses of vandalized cars. A riot, born out of racial tensions and ignited by an incident of perceived police brutality, saw two casualties and hundreds injured in the maelstrom of its violence, a fury that raged from October 5th through 8th of that year.

This upheaval wasn’t isolated to Las Vegas but was a manifestation of the national unrest simmering across America. Associate Professor Tyler Parry from the African American and African Diaspora Studies department at UNLV, claims that the devastating episode was the culmination of a decade fraught with unfulfilled promises from political leaders. As people’s frustrations with a lack of progress in the post-civil rights era escalated, they began to resist police brutality and systemic racism, compelling the government to pay heed.

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The genesis for this regrettable chapter in Las Vegas’s history began with a routine traffic stop. On October 5th, a Black police officer, Robert Arrington, pulled over a Black taxi driver for speeding. A local, Gerald Davis, recognized the driver and approached to inquire about the problem. According to Parry, Arrington perceived this as a challenge to his authority. Thus began an escalating altercation that set the stage for the ensuing unrest.

Following the detention of the Davis brothers, a crowd of about 150 people gathered, setting the stage for a larger confrontation. In the ensuing hours, a standoff between equally matched forces of police and protesters at the Golden West Shopping Center unfolded. Intensifying unrest prompted the police to withdraw before midnight in the hope of lowering tensions.

However, new episodes of violence instigated by fresh incidents stoked the embers of strife over the following days. Agitated rioters looted liquor stores for makeshift weapons and hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at police cruisers. Power was shut off, and a curfew imposed in an attempt to quell the escalating chaos.

The third day marked a tragic turn as Albert Hayes Jr., a 35-year-old Black man, was fatally shot while fleeing a burgled liquor store, and 71-year-old Carl Benson lost his life resisting an attempted robbery.

Parry believes that the African-American history of Las Vegas, including the 1969 riots, has often been overshadowed by the more attention-grabbing stories of the city’s mob history, corporate power shifts, and the glamour of the casinos. More recognition, he says, needs to be given to the culturally rich Black community of Las Vegas – an integral part of the city’s identity. He will be sharing more insights on this forgotten chapter of Las Vegas history in a public lecture on April 4, at UNLV.