by Annelise Orleck
It was a spring day on the Las Vegas strip in 1971 when Ruby Duncan, a former cotton picker turned hotel maid, the mother of seven, led a procession. Followed by an angry army of welfare mothers, they stormed the casino hotel Caesars Palace to protest Nevada’s decision to terminate their benefits. The demonstrations went on for weeks, garnering the protesters and their cause national attention. Las Vegas felt the pinch; tourism was cut by half. Ultimately, a federal judge ruled to reinstate benefits. It was a victory for welfare rights advocates across the country.
In Storming Caesars Palace, historian Annelise Orleck tells the compelling story of how a group of welfare mothers and their supporters built one of this country’s most successful antipoverty programs. Declaring that “we can do it and do it better” these women proved that poor mothers are the real experts on poverty. In 1972 they founded Operation Life, which was responsible for all kinds of firsts for the poor in Las Vegas—the first library, medical center, daycare center, job training, and senior citizen housing. By the late 1970s, Operation Life was bringing millions of dollars into the community each year. And these women were influential in Washington, D.C.—respected and listened to by the likes of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ted Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter.
Ultimately, in the 1980s, Ruby Duncan and her band of reformers lost their funding with the country’s move toward conservatism. But the story of their incredible struggles and triumphs still stands as an important lesson about what can be achieved when those on welfare chart their own course.
An up-close-and-personal account of nine strong-minded African-American women who became welfare-rights activists in Las Vegas. Historian Orleck (History and Women's and Gender Studies/Dartmouth) spent some 12 years following the determined women who in 1972 founded Operation Life, an antipoverty program that challenged the stereotype of welfare mothers as apolitical or apathetic. She recounts the early years of her subjects as the poorest of the poor in the cotton fields of the South, their postwar migration to Nevada in search of a better life for their children and their experiences at the bottom of the economic and social ladder in segregated Las Vegas. In the 1960s came Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, but its focus was on jobs for men, reports Orleck, and mothers receiving welfare found the system onerous and humiliating. Having learned through the Hotel and Culinary Workers Union the value of organizing to bring about change, they formed a welfare-rights group. After successfully fighting Nevada welfare cuts, the group of black mothers became active in the Democratic party and began lobbying, fund-raising and running for office. They turned to community development as well, in time building clinics, daycare centers and libraries in their rundown Westside neighborhood. Orleck's leading character is the powerful matriarch Ruby Duncan, who eventually advised Jimmy Carter on welfare and jobs programs, but she sees all the mothers of Operation Life as "poster women for a new model of welfare reform-from the bottom up." She argues that the history of Operation Life demonstrates "the rich potential of a poor women's movement for economic justice."A worthy history of the country's changingattitudes toward welfare and the various attempts to eradicate poverty.
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Annelise Orleck is associate professor of history and women's and gender studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Common Sense and a Little Fire and Soviet Jewish Americans and coeditor of The Politics of Motherhood. Orleck lives in Thetford Center, Vermont, with her partner and their two children.
Paperback: 376 pages