Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, has published a book titled Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty.
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.
Duncan and others were part of a grassroots anti-poverty group called Operation Life. Former members recently enjoyed a reunion of sorts at UNLV to speak about their experiences during a book signing. According to Las Vegas CityLife,
Orleck says Operation Life and the work of the West Las Vegas black welfare mothers, many of whom had little to no formal education, “was a shining example” of how people could unite for a common goal. Operation Life brought the first health clinic, senior housing and library to the Westside …
Even though Operation Life is no more, its influence has left lasting effects in Nevada and elsewhere. The organization successfully lobbied for millions in federal money to bring food stamps to the state for the first time, as well as being one of the first certified Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food programs in the country. When welfare and other poverty services were on the chopping block, Duncan was one of a handful of women around the country who spoke before Congress in an effort to keep the programs going. In 1977, Operation Life was the only Title 7 nonprofit organization to get federal funding in the country, Orleck says in her book.
Storming Caesars Palace (6×9; hardcover; 400 pages) is available from Beacon Press for $29.95.