Remembering Civil Rights Leader Onie Cooper

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RENO, NV - If the history of civil rights in northern Nevada is ever written there will be more than a chapter on Onie Cooper, who died this week at age 86.

Born in Louisiana, Cooper experienced the discrimination of the Jim Crow South at an early age. Decades later he could recall during World War 2 he trying to board a bus wearing his country's uniform.

"The driver said 'boy you can't get on that bus' and filled it with white folks."

After the war he moved west expecting to find, he said, a place where he could live in dignity. The Reno he first saw in 1949 was not that place.

It was known as the Mississippi of the West. Most casinos and restaurants were closed to African Americans.

An entertainer like Sammy Davis Junior might headline at the Riverside, but he had to find lodging elsewhere, usually with a local family. Only at the New China Club, the small Harlem Club and the Greyhound Bus Station allowed an African American to sit down to a meal.

"There were signs saying they didn't want colored trade," remembers Eddie Scott, who with Bertha Woodard and others founded a local NAACP chapter in 1952.

Inspired by national figures like Martin Luther King, they began pressing for change with pickets and demonstrations if necessary.

"We didn't demonstrate without invitation," remembers Scott. "They invited us with their attitude and behavior."

Cooper was living in Herlong, but later moved to Reno and joined the movement.

In 1980, he sued the state for discrimination and became the first, perhaps the only person, to win such a suit.

For decades he fought to have a local street named for Martin Luther King. Instead he got a designation on several miles of U-S 395. It's marked by only four signs and is little noticed, but a yearly caravan on King's birthday that he organized and led changed that at least one day a year.

"Onie Cooper will stand out in our local history," says Scott, "especially to those he fought for."

In later years Cooper worried that today's young generation not having, known figures like King and lived through the struggles of his life time might lose that legacy.

"When we can't carry on," he told one group of youngsters before one of his caravans, "we want you to carry on."

If this generation needs inspiration, they might very well find it by remembering the life and work of Onie Cooper.

A memorial service has been scheduled for 9:30 am Friday the 14th at Reno's Second Baptist Church. Burial will follow at the Veterans Cemetery in Fernley.