KAREN BENNETT

A DIVINE COLLABORATION 

 

With justice as her ministry, Judge Karen Bennett-Haron is the first black woman appointed to the bench in the state of Nevada. Initial resistance to her philosophy of humane judgment, culturally responsive law and the engaging of community courts has resulted in acknowledgement by the MacArthur Foundation and an embrace of “The Bennett Model” as the national conversation and the Nevada court system move toward smart justice and reform.  

 

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My dad is the Reverend Marion D. Bennett. He was president of the NAACP in the ’60s and he was also in the legislature. I think he may have been there before Joe and during. Joe Neal used to date my aunt and I went to the movies with them — a small, small community. Very. At the time I was growing up, still in the midst of civil rights, there was some achievement. This was a community that was segregated but not in the same forceful kind of way that you see segregation mimicked on television. There was an actual black community. Jackson Street and along D Street actually had thriving businesses, all of which were run by black folks, if not black owned. Because people had left, primarily, northern Louisiana and Arkansas, they were coming from very oppressive environments. When they came here, they were very willing to listen and to be active in order to make certain their past experience was not duplicated. The smallness of the community helped the message stay on point. Nobody would vote until they got the Voter’s League ballot which was published by an arm of the NAACP — which really was code for understanding candidates who were going to support issues that impacted people of color. You had lawyers like Charles Kellar who was denied the right to practice in this state for five years. He’s really the first African-American lawyer in Nevada. Moved here from New York at the behest of Thurgood Marshall. So, from ’60 to ’65, you basically got hands-on, free legal services provided to the NAACP. So, you’ve got Jim Anderson and you’ve got Charles Kellar and Dr. (Charles) West with the newspaper. It was a divine collaboration. Through Zion, my dad was able to communicate with most of the pastors, and they were all on point in terms of how they were going to get information to their congregations, which was essentially the majority of the black community. It grew organically. A very divine time in terms of the presence of the people who were here. The smallness of it really helped to keep the nexus going and everybody on point. There were so many relationships. Especially during that time when the casinos were individually owned. What Jim Patterson came up with, he pulled the newspapers every day and circled all of the jobs. They would essentially put together a group of black folks to apply — not one person — but a whole contingent. Sarann Knight was in there. That’s how she became a keno writer and, ultimately, a dealer. They sent out large numbers. Somebody had to get a gig, you know. It was very well-thought out. And people win. You didn’t have a whole lot to lose. That’s how it was done. Then you’d have people like Mrs. Hughes who owned a grocery store and a liquor store. She and her husband used to sell sandwiches and all sorts of stuff, because you know, you couldn’t eat out there on the Strip, right. So, you’d come back after all that and they’d feed you. It was just a nurturing and, in my mind, much more progressive community. All of those people, like Woodrow Wilson who started the first African-American credit union here, educators, pastors, all of them started to drift away. As those folks left us — transitioned — they weren’t there to feed us anymore. There was no independent thought. Not about those kinds of issues. It happened amongst a few people but not enough that it would continue. As soon as people succeed, the first thing they want to do, you know, is get off the Westside. Anywhere but here. And so, you take your earning power. You take your young family. You take all of that and you start to strip away. The same thing happens in other communities, but it happened quickly here. What is the new black Las Vegan? The new black Las Vegan aspires to possess strong entrepreneurial efforts particularly in the areas of community development and commitment to a kind of uplift and understanding of the importance of uplifting a community. Very connected to authentic black experiences, not running away from them.

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