Storming Caesars Palace

Storming Caesars Palace

How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

Book - 2005
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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.
Publisher: Boston : Beacon Press, c2005.
ISBN: 9780807050323
Branch Call Number: 362.5097931
Characteristics: 368 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.


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Jun 04, 2012

Long before Barack Obama became a community organizer there was a rowdy and admirable bunch of women from the Delta South who community-organized the heck out of Las Vegas. The author is to be commended for recognizing the importance of this story; she has written an important book.

There were many who joined the welfare rights organization but the book details a handful. Among them was Ruby Duncan (born in 1932), who never made it past 9th grade but who is a powerful example to anyone who ever wanted to effect change. We should all know and honor her name.

Ruby Duncan was a dynamo and could not be stopped despite being arrested, receiving death threats, being targeted by the welfare authorities, and ridiculed in the newspapers while also raising her children, doing many many hours of unpaid work to develop the Operation Life organization and its programs, and struggling to survive on the puny welfare checks Nevada issued. Duncan was a firestorm at getting grants and in its twenty years of existence, Operation Life organized a food bank and a medical clinic, participated in the WIC program for pregnant women & infants, built low-income and senior housing, ran job placement programs, provided child care programs, created a library, refurbished a neigh-borhood pool and ran it, taught nutrition, provided drug & alcohol treatment, offered workshops on self-esteem, and worked against domestic violence and sexual assault. Operation Life survived the administrations of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and almost all of GW's time in the Oval Office before dissolving in the face of massive budget cuts and the trend toward profes-sionalization which eliminated the paid and unpaid work of most of the Operation Life staff of welfare mothers who lacked high school diplomas.

The women's determination, creativity, solidarity and competence was phenomenal. Ruby Duncan met Jimmy Carter when he was running for President and, after he was elected, he brought her to the White House several times to consult with her. She also consulted with several of the Carter administration's staff in departments relevant to her cause, served on the steering committee for Carter's White House Conference on Families, and was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. She became active in Democratic politics and was a delegate to their national convention. She persuaded many of her members to follow her in joining the National Organization for Women (NOW) because she was convinced that sexism, as well as racism and classism, was a major force in limiting the jobs (and income) of welfare mothers. She should be a role model for us all.


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