Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
Original illustration © Ellis Rosen
You wouldn’t expect James McMillan to bluff. He once called Lyndon Johnson “the most bigoted bastard that I’ve ever known.” McMillan had a blunt honesty that hampered his success in electoral politics. But in March of 1960, with just ten days before the protest, he was doing his best to keep a poker face.
As president of the NAACP in Las Vegas, he’d written a widely publicized letter to the mayor promising a massive protest on the Strip unless segregation ended in the city. At the time, black people were barred from casinos downtown and on the Strip. Yet as the date of the march approached, McMillan surveyed his organizational efforts with dismay. It wasn’t easy to rally people for an event where they faced potential beatings and arrests. “This isn’t going to happen,” he told himself. “These people are not going to march.”
The last move remaining was the stone-cold bluff: stare down the Vegas power brokers, some of the most dangerous underworld figures in the country, and hope they folded first. “The only thing that I had going for me was that the caucasians had not faced this type of thing before,” he recalled. “They were afraid.” In the meantime, he was getting death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. His children would answer the phone and be told to expect a bomb. But there was no turning back. McMillan’s gambit would define his life and transform the city of Las Vegas.
Born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, in 1917, McMillan first encountered gambling as the exclusive preserve of white people. A small gambling den operated behind his house. White men would pass through the backyard and rub the child’s head for good luck before entering the world of chance, where James couldn’t follow.
He didn’t yet have the words to articulate injustice, but he would learn them from his mother. Rosalie McMillan was the daughter of a former slave from the West Indies who had lived as the unofficial wife of a prominent white veterinarian named Sam Gay. It was an open secret in Aberdeen that Rosalie and her brothers were Gay’s children, and in his memoir, Fighting Back, McMillan said that “as long as [Gay] was living they didn’t have any worry about trouble from whites.”
Rosalie grew up outspoken and proud—words that would later apply to her son—and with her unique status as Sam Gay’s daughter, she considered herself exempt from Southern segregation. But as Gay grew older and went blind, his influence in Aberdeen waned. When James was five years old, Rosalie slapped a white man for covering her eyes and saying, “Guess who?” (He had mistaken her for his girlfriend.) Several days later, the KKK hauled Rosalie out of her home. Within sight of her son, they tore off her blouse, tied her to a post, and lashed her fifteen times with a buggy whip.
Rosalie soon escaped the South with her son. They stayed in New York and Philadelphia, where she married a cement-finisher named Emery Philpot, before making their way to a more settled life in Detroit.
Phlipot became a successful Numbers agent, providing the young James McMillan with another, more hopeful view of gambling. The game of Numbers originated in Harlem in the early twenties. A low-cost lottery, Numbers simply requires bettors to select the digits that will appear on a randomized draw. Everything from the daily report of the U.S. Treasury balance to the wagering sums at racetracks has been used as the random number generator. The game is so popular that a whole industry of superstition—dream books and numerological guides—has flourished alongside it. When Numbers first appeared, the poet Claude McKay said, “Harlem was set upon a perpetual hunt for lucky numbers.”
By importing a Harlem-style Numbers racket to the Detroit area, Philpot became wealthy enough to buy a home in a white neighborhood. For McMillan’s family, those lucky numbers were a path to prosperity, which perhaps helps explain why, in the fateful spring of 1960, he would be so driven to desegregate Vegas gambling, even at the expense of other political gains.
One essential quality McMillan learned from his mother was how to manipulate systems. Wherever she went, Rosalie organized political meetings, and the friends she made in high places secured her jobs and favors. Likewise, McMillan perceived his college education as a system he could master: “I studied the professor; I knew what he liked and what he didn’t like.” He could pass a course in German without speaking a word of the language. Later, he’d be attracted to the NAACP precisely because they “understood what the system was … how to go to court to get the things we needed.”
But he soon understood that white supremacy was a complicated system to master. He lost an athletic scholarship because he dated a white girl, and racial slurs were scrawled on his family home. One of the worst insults came during World War II, when McMillan joined the army to serve as a dentist. He thought the military would be one place he’d find equality, but discovered that even German POWs were accorded rights denied to him. “My experiences with racism in the army had made me an angry young man,” he said, “and I stayed angry for a long time.”
In 1955, that angry young man moved to Las Vegas. He settled in the Westside, the city’s 1.5-square-mile black neighborhood. His daughter, Jarmilla Arnold, who was nine years old at the time, recently told me that her first sight of the neighborhood brought tears to her eyes. The roads weren’t paved; there were no sidewalks, streetlights, or sewage lines. With no running water, and temperatures that reached 120 degrees, men rented out galvanized bathtubs for twenty-five cents a soak. But in West Las Vegas, McMillan established himself as the first black dentist in Nevada, and discovered the wellspring of a lifetime in activism.
It was McMillan’s good luck to arrive on the Westside during the brief heyday of the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated casino-hotel in America, which suggested a different path for the city’s future. At the time, Vegas had the reputation of “the Mississippi of the West,” and the NAACP called it the fifth-worst Jim Crow city in America. Even top-billed black entertainers couldn’t stay in the casinos where they performed. When Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toe in the swimming pool at the Hotel Last Frontier, the management drained the water. Lena Horne once secretly secured a cabana at the Flamingo, and the maids burned her bedsheets in the morning. And so, once the revues on the Strip were over, black entertainers made their way to the Westside, where they’d play late shows in small clubs like the Town Tavern on Jackson Street before retiring to boarding houses on Berkley Square.
Soon enough, white investors from Los Angeles decided to capitalize on the vibrancy of West Las Vegas. On May 24, 1955, the Moulin Rouge, “The Resort Wonder of the World,” opened with an opulent gala hosted by Joe Louis (the boxing legend also had a small stake in the casino). A massive hot-pink neon sign designed by Betty Willis, who created the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, crowned the building, while inside, crystal chandeliers illuminated murals of Parisian scenes, an all-black chorus line performed the Tropi-Can-Can Revue, and on the casino floor, gamblers were promised “action, action, action.”
Suddenly, the Westside had a casino-hotel to rival the Strip. Perhaps it even surpassed more famous resorts like the Desert Inn or the Sands, for only at the Moulin Rouge could black and white celebrities socialize and perform together. Any given night, on the stage or casino floor, you might see Nat King Cole and Dean Martin, Tallulah Bankhead and Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. When the last show on the Strip finished, the night was just getting started at the Moulin Rouge.
That golden age would last only six months. The abrupt closure of the Moulin Rouge remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of Las Vegas. Some say it went under because its owners skimmed too much off the top; others claim the underworld figures who controlled the Strip—and who would soon be McMillan’s adversaries—lobbied for it to be shut down. It’s certainly true that the Moulin Rouge was decentralizing the seat of power in the city. Owners on the Strip were so threatened that they banned employees from frequenting the integrated casino on the Westside.
After that first closure, the Moulin Rouge would periodically reopen under new management, but it never regained its early momentum. Those six glittering months have passed into local legend as a paradise lost. “The amazing place was almost perfect,” says Earnest N. Bracey, a scholar of West Las Vegas, “like a racially integrated Camelot, a dream world.” And it would provide the setting for the most decisive day in the life of James McMillan.
When McMillan became president of the Las Vegas NAACP, he followed in the footsteps of activists like Lubertha Johnson, who staged sit-ins and successfully fought for federally funded, low-income housing on the Westside. In early 1960, the national NAACP instructed the presidents of every branch to commence an all-out assault on racial discrimination. McMillan sent an incendiary letter to the mayor of Las Vegas, telling him that over three hundred people would march on the Strip in thirty days unless immediate action was taken.
Although McMillan called it a peaceful protest, a civil rights march in 1960 was loaded with the potential for violence. The ministers of some churches in West Las Vegas warned McMillan that if black people disrupted business on the Strip, their neighborhood would be burned down.
But as the day of the march approached, McMillan was more concerned with whether he could create any disturbance at all. He’d met with the mayor, who promised city jobs for black people if he called off the protest, and a member of the First National Bank likewise promised loans to black people to buy homes and start businesses, if only they didn’t ruin the pristine image of America’s convention capital. McMillan turned these deals down. He wanted the total end of segregation in Las Vegas. But would he be able to deliver three hundred people? His daughter, Jarmilla Arnold, told me how important a stellar reputation was to McMillan. And now, he told himself, “I’m about to be out there with nothing covering my naked ass.”
Two days before the protest, McMillan received a phone call from Oscar Crozier, an owner of the El Morocco club. Crozier had been acting as a liaison with the power brokers of Las Vegas. The Desert Inn, for instance, was owned by Moe Dalitz, who could trace his wealth back to bootlegging and union corruption; the Tropicana padded the pockets of Frank Costello, “Prime Minister of the Underworld”; and the El Cortez largely belonged to a man from Minneapolis known as “Ice Pick Willy.”
On the phone, Oscar Crozier said the underworld had a message for McMillan: “Cool it or you might be found floating face down in Lake Mead.”
But McMillan had studied the system. From sunrise to sunset in Las Vegas, money was on everybody’s mind. He told Crozier to deliver a message of his own: “All I’m trying to do is make this a cosmopolitan city, and that will make more money for them.” McMillan had pushed his chips to the middle of the table. If the underworld called his bluff now, he was busted.
Whatever Crozier said—and whoever he said it to—has been lost to history. All that’s known is that he called McMillan back. “Mac,” he said, “it’s okay. They’re going to make their people let blacks stay in the hotels. They’re going to integrate this town.”
A victorious McMillan called a meeting at the Moulin Rouge to make the announcement. Present at what has come to be known as the Moulin Rouge Agreement were representatives of the NAACP, as well as the mayor, the sheriff, the governor, the editor of the Las Vegas Sun, and Lubertha Johnson. Not letting on that it had been a bluff, McMillan declared that there would be no need to march after all. Segregation was over in Las Vegas.
For the white politicians, it was a great photo opportunity. But as McMillan noted in his memoir, they had nothing to do with ending segregation. While the public face of Las Vegas shone brightly at the Moulin Rouge that day, the men who really ran the city kept to the dim back parlors.
The name of James McMillan will forever be associated with the Moulin Rouge Agreement, but until the day he died, in 1999, he questioned whether he’d played his hand correctly. In retrospect, he felt his fixation on ending segregation caused him to miss opportunities to establish a new, enduring power-base in West Las Vegas. “Opening up the city, eliminating segregation, didn’t do anything but help the white establishment make more money,” he said. “We actually hurt the black population.”
It would be years before even the most overt discrimination disappeared. Some casinos, like Binion’s Horseshoe and the Sal Sagev, refused to honor the agreement altogether. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, progress moved slowly. It took a 1971 class-action lawsuit, commonly known as the Consent Decree, to integrate jobs in the casino industry.
Meanwhile, McMillan tried establishing a black-owned bank on the Westside, but came up short, and he seemed to perceive this failure as more significant than his triumph at the Moulin Rouge. “For any race to survive,” he said, “they must have capital.” He’d promised the underworld more money, and that’s what they got—all the money of West Las Vegas. “I thought that with a desegregated city, blacks would still go to black businesses and spend their money; but I soon saw how mistaken I was.” What had been a vibrant community gradually withered as its capital flowed to the Strip, and for thirty years after the Agreement, McMillan lamented the lack of construction on his beloved Westside.
In May 2018, a developer called Spec Builders USA, Inc. announced plans to revive the Moulin Rouge. The original building had fallen victim to arson in 2003; what remained was demolished; and the famous sign had been sent to the Neon Boneyard. But Spec Builders declared their intention to rebuild the casino, the symbol of Westside excellence, and construct a civil rights museum to honor all those who fought the Mississippi of the West.
And then, in December 2018, it was reported that Spec Builders had failed to produce a $200,000 good-faith deposit. Their lofty plans fell through. As the president of the Chamber of Commerce complained to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it was up to the city to intervene: “They have to put the same spirit behind the Moulin Rouge as they did the Mob Museum.” It seemed the ghosts of the underworld, the men McMillan stared down in the spring of 1960, were inflicting one last act of vengeance on the Camelot of West Las Vegas.
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto.
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