Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
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.