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Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

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In "Storming Caesars Palace," historian Annelise Orleck tells the compelling story of how a group of welfare mothers built one of this country's most successful antipoverty programs. Declaring "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 many firsts for In "Storming Caesars Palace," historian Annelise Orleck tells the compelling story of how a group of welfare mothers built one of this country's most successful antipoverty programs. Declaring "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 many 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. These women became influential in Washington, DC-respected and listened to by political heavyweights such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ted Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter. Though they lost their funding with the country's move toward conservatism in the 1980s, their struggles and phenomenal triumphs still stand as a critical lesson about what can be achieved when those on welfare chart their own course.


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In "Storming Caesars Palace," historian Annelise Orleck tells the compelling story of how a group of welfare mothers built one of this country's most successful antipoverty programs. Declaring "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 many firsts for In "Storming Caesars Palace," historian Annelise Orleck tells the compelling story of how a group of welfare mothers built one of this country's most successful antipoverty programs. Declaring "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 many 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. These women became influential in Washington, DC-respected and listened to by political heavyweights such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ted Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter. Though they lost their funding with the country's move toward conservatism in the 1980s, their struggles and phenomenal triumphs still stand as a critical lesson about what can be achieved when those on welfare chart their own course.

30 review for Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

  1. 4 out of 5

    Stefania Dzhanamova

    Annelise Orleck's brilliant work tells the tale of the long, hard war on poverty Las Vegas black mothers waged, focusing on Operation Nevada and Operation Life and their unsung heroes. "Even in jaded Las Vegas, no one had ever seen anything like it," begins Orleck her narrative. On a spring Saturday in 1971, "tourists gaped and gamblers dropped their chips" as 1,500 protestors streamed past the statue of Julius Caesar on the Las Vegas Strip and entered the fabled Caesars Palace, the pinnacle of L Annelise Orleck's brilliant work tells the tale of the long, hard war on poverty Las Vegas black mothers waged, focusing on Operation Nevada and Operation Life and their unsung heroes. "Even in jaded Las Vegas, no one had ever seen anything like it," begins Orleck her narrative. On a spring Saturday in 1971, "tourists gaped and gamblers dropped their chips" as 1,500 protestors streamed past the statue of Julius Caesar on the Las Vegas Strip and entered the fabled Caesars Palace, the pinnacle of Las Vegas excess and the nation’s best-known symbol of conspicuous consumption. Ruby Duncan, a cotton picker turned hotel maid and mother of seven, led the procession of welfare mothers and children, actress Jane Fonda and civil rights leader Reverend Ralph Abernathy at her side. Assisted by the National Welfare Rights Organization – which named the action "Operation Nevada" – Duncan had assembled a coalition of welfare mothers, Legal Services lawyers, radical priests and nuns, civil rights leaders, movie stars, and housewives "in an unprecedented act of civil disobedience." With signs reading “Nevada Gambles with Human Lives” and “Nevada Starves Children", this ragtag army came to protest Nevada’s decision to throw one in three welfare families of the rolls and cut benefits for another third, and it stopped the gambling for an hour, something no one had done before. And the next weekend they did it again, this time sitting down in the middle of the Strip itself. Duncan boasted that they had backed up traffic all the way to Los Angeles. The demonstrations went on for weeks. Tourism to Las Vegas was cut in half. By shutting down gambling in Sin City, the protests cost the casino hotels and the state of Nevada untold sums of money. Two weeks later, a federal judge condemned Nevada for running “roughshod over the constitutional rights of the poor," and welfare rights advocates across the nation celebrated. Yet, Operation Nevada was a success only for a short while – there would be more cuts in the years to come. So Ruby Duncan and her band of welfare mothers set their sights on a more ambitious and, they hoped, more lasting goal: improving life on the black Westside of Las Vegas, a Jim Crow shantytown that lacked paved streets, telephones, and even indoor plumbing in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1972, the mothers formed a nonprofit community development corporation called Operation Life. Declaring “we can do it, and do it better,” they brought the West Las Vegas, languishing in the "neon shadows" of "America's easy-money fantasy-land," its first library, medical clinic, daycare center, job training office, and senior citizen housing complex. Headquartered in an abandoned hotel and led by Ruby Duncan, who was always full of new ideas, Operation Life became a vital part of a community neglected by federal, state, and city officials ever since black migrants flooded into Las Vegas in the search of jobs during World War II. As we learn from Annelise Orleck, the welfare mothers' story was a wild ride full of unexpected twists. To bring basic services to the Westside, the women of Operation Life staged eat-ins at the casinos and read-ins at “whites only” public libraries. They occupied dilapidated buildings and turned them into clinics and daycare centers. They lobbied state and federal legislatures, and cornered agency heads to ask for money. Assisted by a bizarre alliance – a casino pit boss turned Legal Services lawyer, a politically smart Franciscan priest, and an oil heiress committed to fighting poverty – and by other loyal activists inspired by the women’s spirit and tenacity, they made mob bosses, casino owners, mayors, governors, and senators uncomfortable and responsive. Most importantly, in the words of Democratic party activist and former state assemblywoman Renee Diamond, Ruby Duncan and the women of Operation Life "dragged Nevada kicking and screaming into the twentieth century." They convinced politicians to accept federal poverty programs they had obstinately resisted for a long time: the Food Stamp Program (which provided government issue coupons that low-income people could redeem in grocery stores for foods of their choice), the Women and Infant Children Nutrition Program, and free medical screenings for poor children. What's more, they persuaded federal officials to let them administer the programs themselves. "Why not?” asked Mary Wesley, an Operation Life cofounder and mother of eight. “This was something I really knew about: poor people and kids.” By the mid-1970s, Operation Life was one of the few poor mothers’ groups in the U.S. running a federally funded medical facility, as well as one of the first women-run community development corporations and the first group of poor women to run a Women and Infant Children nutrition program. The clinic was managed so effectively that Caspar Weinberger – President Ford’s no-nonsense Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare – held it up as a national model. Storming Caesars Palace is told mainly from the point of view of the welfare mothers who created Operation Life: Ruby Duncan, Alversa Beals, Essie Henderson, Mary Wesley, Emma Stampley, and Rosie Seals. On one hand, it is their story: the experiences of poor black women who moved from Louisiana and other Southern states to Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s in search of a better life for their children. With vivid descriptions, it traces their early years in cotton country, their migration to Sin City, their years in the Hotel and Culinary Workers Union when Las Vegas was still a Jim Crow town, their slide onto welfare, their battles for welfare rights, and the two decades during which they ran a revolutionary experiment in welfare reform. On the other hand, Orleck's work is an account of antipoverty policy in the U.S. and of poor people’s political movements. The lives of Operation Life women span the era of federal aid to poor families – from the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 to the abolition of permanent aid to poor mothers under Bill Clinton in 1996. Compellingly highlighting the experiences of welfare mothers during these decades, this book connects economic shifts, national political debates, and migration with poverty, and sheds new light on government efforts to eradicate poverty in the country. LBJ's War on Poverty became Ronald Reagan’s war on the poor; Bill Clinton ended welfare; George W. Bush shredded FDR's social security. "With all the discussion and debate about how to improve this nation’s system of providing aid to the poor, few humane, creative, or genuinely new ideas have surfaced in decades," observes Orleck. This is why it's worth taking a closer look at what West Las Vegas mothers did – they offered an alternative model for fighting poverty, a model that supported poor families instead of humiliating them. This is why Storming Caesars Palace is a highly important book – it tells us the stories of the real experts on poverty, the poor mothers.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Katie Hanna

    Incredible. I wish I had time to write a full review here, but I don't. For now, let me just give you this brief synopsis: Basically, this book tells the story of Operation Life--a group of poor, uneducated, African American women who banded together to become the greatest force for positive social change the city of Las Vegas had ever seen. I've read a lot of inspiring books this year, but this one is definitely near the top of the list. I want to go back and re-read it again. I want to see it Incredible. I wish I had time to write a full review here, but I don't. For now, let me just give you this brief synopsis: Basically, this book tells the story of Operation Life--a group of poor, uneducated, African American women who banded together to become the greatest force for positive social change the city of Las Vegas had ever seen. I've read a lot of inspiring books this year, but this one is definitely near the top of the list. I want to go back and re-read it again. I want to see it made into a movie. More than anything, I want other people to read it too. Because it's awesome. Favorite quote: " 'Poor women must dream their highest dreams and never stop.' "

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jordan Abbott

    wow, it's almost as if direct action, grassroots organization and mutual aid are more effective than the impersonal and dehumanizing welfare policy propagated by the white male gerontocracy :/ wow, it's almost as if direct action, grassroots organization and mutual aid are more effective than the impersonal and dehumanizing welfare policy propagated by the white male gerontocracy :/

  4. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    I decided it was about time to finish Storming Caesars Palace in an effort to have a clean slate for 2011 and began Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony at about the same time. The opening lines of Silko's book bewildered me, and I set it down to read it when in a more meditative mindset: Their evil is mighty / but it can't stand up to our stories. / So they try to destroy the stories / let the stories be confused or forgotten. / They would like that / They would be happy / Because we would be defensel I decided it was about time to finish Storming Caesars Palace in an effort to have a clean slate for 2011 and began Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony at about the same time. The opening lines of Silko's book bewildered me, and I set it down to read it when in a more meditative mindset: Their evil is mighty / but it can't stand up to our stories. / So they try to destroy the stories / let the stories be confused or forgotten. / They would like that / They would be happy / Because we would be defenseless then. On finishing Storming Caesars Palace, the meaning in that passage seems so clear and is something that comes up time and again throughout my research. It is essential to preserve histories and the stories of the voices that a hegemonic culture would sooner gloss over and destroy. Orleck's book is an essential counterpoint to Reagan's "black welfare mother" driving her Cadillac and getting rich off public funds, now a popular and harmful stereotype in public discourse. It is the story of the women who ran Operation Life, a community group that was deemed the most successful and effective model in its delivery of social and health services to the poor community of Las Vegas. Thanks to her interviews with the women of Operation Life, Orleck expertly sets the backdrop of what it was like to be an African American in the South in the 50s and 60s. It is both riveting and infuriating to read about what the women and their families were up against from the very beginning. The intersectionality of racism and sexism here is glaring and appalling. Despite constant setbacks, the women of Operation Life worked for nearly twenty years to develop their community and bring about true reform. I'm so grateful that this story has been preserved - it's essential to understand that poverty is not just about "BOOTSTRAPS" but things such as deeply embedded structural racism and sexism. There is a history and a politics to this kind of thing that needs to be preserved if we are to ever bring about true reform and change.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Chloe

    3.5 stars This is a fantastic book for folks who are interested in welfare rights, community organizing, social justice, and other related issues. This is an inspiring story, and while reading it, I wished these narratives were more accessible to people who whole heartedly believe that welfare programs primarily serve "welfare queens." I think understanding the complexity of how individuals and communities end up in need of welfare services - and the sort of work folks have done to get themselves 3.5 stars This is a fantastic book for folks who are interested in welfare rights, community organizing, social justice, and other related issues. This is an inspiring story, and while reading it, I wished these narratives were more accessible to people who whole heartedly believe that welfare programs primarily serve "welfare queens." I think understanding the complexity of how individuals and communities end up in need of welfare services - and the sort of work folks have done to get themselves out of those situations - could go a great deal in helping change the public perception of welfare programs (especially at a time when it seems like the American government is ready to cut way back on funding programs that help the poor, among others). Unfortunately, this book is not the kind of book that will be accessible to folks who are not a) incredibly personally invested in the topics covered or b) are comfortable reading rather heavy academic texts. As someone who has zero background knowledge on the history of welfare programs, food stamps, or Las Vegas political history, Storming Ceasars Palace was at times hard to follow (I think it took me until halfway through the book to realize that food stamps were not a part of welfare programs in Las Vegas during the era the book focuses on, for example). At times, I found myself a little lost in the story, and I wish it was a bit simplified, or that major themes were more clearly outlined. Nonetheless, it's an important story that I'm glad I know now more about.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Pepper

    this book is hands down one of the most engaging non fiction books ever. really. it tells the tale of poor black women who migrated to vegas from their lives as sharecroppers in the deep south and end up with lots of kids and on welfare. then they get mad. mad at society for not even considering them for any job other than maid, mad at the welfare system that keeps them down - demonizing them, taking away their constitutional rights and ensuring that they remain reliant on their "help", and mad at this book is hands down one of the most engaging non fiction books ever. really. it tells the tale of poor black women who migrated to vegas from their lives as sharecroppers in the deep south and end up with lots of kids and on welfare. then they get mad. mad at society for not even considering them for any job other than maid, mad at the welfare system that keeps them down - demonizing them, taking away their constitutional rights and ensuring that they remain reliant on their "help", and mad at the lack of access to birth control or any healthcare for that matter. then they do something about it. they organize marches on the strip that shut down the casinos, they tap into all sorts of political and financial resources nationally, and eventually open the first medical clinic and library on the west side and create jobs for 100s of women on welfare. um...i can't do it justice. really.

  7. 4 out of 5

    V.

    This is a prime example of the type of historical work I want to do. Orleck brings us the inspiring, gut-wrenching stories of the women involved in Operation Life, a welfare-rights organization in Las Vegas. She shows us that historians have a definite place in chronicling and advocating for activists and policy-makers.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Meiver

    Storming Caesar’s Palace accomplishes many things. When the book goes into specific moments of the activist women’s lives, it reads as a non-fiction novel, and this style makes the reading easy, succeeding in roping the reader into the drama of the lives of the women organizers who are the protagonists of these stories. When it narrates public moments of activism, changes in legislation, and community institutions’ reform processes and transitions, and their impact, it reads as both a piece of h Storming Caesar’s Palace accomplishes many things. When the book goes into specific moments of the activist women’s lives, it reads as a non-fiction novel, and this style makes the reading easy, succeeding in roping the reader into the drama of the lives of the women organizers who are the protagonists of these stories. When it narrates public moments of activism, changes in legislation, and community institutions’ reform processes and transitions, and their impact, it reads as both a piece of historical research, as well as a journalistic account of events. When Orleck’s voice comes through providing analysis and insight into particular developments and consequences, as well as when she ropes in political and social context to enrich her telling of the personal narratives in the book, then the book becomes more a sociological analysis, as well as a historiography of social justice movements and activism in Nevada, told from both personal as well as institutional points of view. It is clear that Orleck labored to minimize the presence of her own voice in the style of the narrative (she only uses the first person voice in a few paragraphs in the last chapter of the book). Interestingly in these last paragraphs she further describes how during her 12 years of research, Ruby Duncan provided contacts even of folks that would criticize her; how it was important for Duncan that the story was told in a complete way, and was balanced. Still, I feel that the politics of the book, Orleck’s politics, come through—and that these politics prioritize telling the story from the political perspective and point of view of Ruby Duncan, Rosie Seals, Alversa Beals and the other activists. Orleck wanted to describe the difficulties in creating and sustaining a movement for social justice lead by those most marginalized. She wanted to discuss how complexities brought forth by poverty, disease, street violence, etc, impact people’s ability to do social justice work, and how in the case of the Operation Life activists, and all those involved the welfare rights movement in Nevada during this time, it is critical to celebrate their astonishing accomplishments, and highlight their knowledge, and abilities to create intelligent policy, and to effectively design and implement anti-poverty and health programs that make a positive community impact. This model is put forth as an exemplary way to develop policy initiatives that go against top-down models. The book suggests that those affected by problems are in the best position to design solutions for themselves, given enough support and resources. The stories are very detailed, in dialog, chronology, descriptions, emotions of those involved – which is a credit to the activists amazing record keeping, their incredible memory and admirable honesty, as well as to Orleck’s ability to organize and share the findings from her archival research, conversations, and historical information found—to present a meticulously researched and carefully composed history of this movement. While Orleck successfully articulates this movement as connected to the civil rights and the black power movements, she also strongly portrays the agency of the Nevada women by highlighting their independent, self-sustaining, and localized views and methods of activism. Although fed and influenced by national events, and eventually connected to national politics and spheres of influence – this movement had a localized face, and centralized its work and concerns around the needs of the poor people of Las Vegas’ Westside.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

    Wow. This book was good. Good good. Like, I'm about to break into effusive, newspaper review language good. Easy 5 stars. Orleck masterfully blends together history, social analysis, and personal story-telling. The story told in this book is empowering and enraging and beautiful and tragic. And Orleck does a GOOD job of telling it. What I found particularly impressive was her lack of direct editorializing. With the exception of a few paragraphs in the concluding chapter, she never speaks in her Wow. This book was good. Good good. Like, I'm about to break into effusive, newspaper review language good. Easy 5 stars. Orleck masterfully blends together history, social analysis, and personal story-telling. The story told in this book is empowering and enraging and beautiful and tragic. And Orleck does a GOOD job of telling it. What I found particularly impressive was her lack of direct editorializing. With the exception of a few paragraphs in the concluding chapter, she never speaks in her own voice or offers interpretations of events. She doesn't criticize or condemn or assign morality. She lets the facts and the historical actors speak for themselves, and does a splendid job of diminishing her own voice in order to better highlight the voices her subjects. Inspiring. I want everyone to read this!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ocean

    i've only read 2 chapters but i have to return it to the library before i go out of town tomorrow. this is a note to myself. this book promises to be amazing--the story of a group of disenfranchised welfare mothers who stormed one of the biggest casinos in vegas in 1971 (?) and shut it down, in response to the state issuing drastic welfare cuts. the story of their grassroots organizing & years of work & the real change that it created. a story i'd never heard of until i chanced upon it at the li i've only read 2 chapters but i have to return it to the library before i go out of town tomorrow. this is a note to myself. this book promises to be amazing--the story of a group of disenfranchised welfare mothers who stormed one of the biggest casinos in vegas in 1971 (?) and shut it down, in response to the state issuing drastic welfare cuts. the story of their grassroots organizing & years of work & the real change that it created. a story i'd never heard of until i chanced upon it at the library, and that you've probably never heard of either, but you really should.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ash

    I read this book as part of my History course at UNLV. Often I feel like there are people who have gone on to do many wonderful things in history and don't get the credit or recognition they deserve. I have lived in Vegas for a majority of my life and had no idea that these women existed. However, I am glad to have read their story and learn about all that they've done for the community. It was informative, yet also heartwarming. I really enjoyed this book. I read this book as part of my History course at UNLV. Often I feel like there are people who have gone on to do many wonderful things in history and don't get the credit or recognition they deserve. I have lived in Vegas for a majority of my life and had no idea that these women existed. However, I am glad to have read their story and learn about all that they've done for the community. It was informative, yet also heartwarming. I really enjoyed this book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Karlyn

    Storming Caesar's Palace grippingly recounts the decades of struggle by welfare mother's in Las Vegas for basic rights and respect. Orleck places Operation Life's battles as a continuation of the pre-1965 beloved community movement as opposed to binding into the late sixties black power movement. The book is largely told through the core group of welfare mothers who fought for the well-being of the mothers and children on Las Vegas' West Side. Storming Caesar's Palace grippingly recounts the decades of struggle by welfare mother's in Las Vegas for basic rights and respect. Orleck places Operation Life's battles as a continuation of the pre-1965 beloved community movement as opposed to binding into the late sixties black power movement. The book is largely told through the core group of welfare mothers who fought for the well-being of the mothers and children on Las Vegas' West Side.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sallie

    I'm reading this for my book group's meeting in February. I wondered why I didn't remember this happening in Las Vegas, but then I realized I was living in Anchorage at the time. My mom, who worked at the Stardust Hotel, never mentioned it to me when we talked. 11-3-10 I plan to finish this book someday, but just not right now. I'm reading this for my book group's meeting in February. I wondered why I didn't remember this happening in Las Vegas, but then I realized I was living in Anchorage at the time. My mom, who worked at the Stardust Hotel, never mentioned it to me when we talked. 11-3-10 I plan to finish this book someday, but just not right now.

  14. 4 out of 5

    J

    A great book if you are interested in grassroots organizing, the U.S. history of social welfare, and/or a piece of Nevada's history. I have met Ruby Duncan and she is truly a down-to-earth person who set out to make a difference in her community. Her story is fantastic. A great book if you are interested in grassroots organizing, the U.S. history of social welfare, and/or a piece of Nevada's history. I have met Ruby Duncan and she is truly a down-to-earth person who set out to make a difference in her community. Her story is fantastic.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Chade66

    Tried to read this too soon after the end of grad school, just couldn't make myself read it. Will try again. Tried to read this too soon after the end of grad school, just couldn't make myself read it. Will try again.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Micah

    Bought this at Bookworks in Wrigleyville last night (Chicago's most slept-on book store! This place is amaaaazing!). I am dying to read it. Bought this at Bookworks in Wrigleyville last night (Chicago's most slept-on book store! This place is amaaaazing!). I am dying to read it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Judi

    Amazing women activists...in las vegas!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    A great book, explaining the intricacies of these women's oppression and how they beat the system. An important history to know. A great book, explaining the intricacies of these women's oppression and how they beat the system. An important history to know.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Aimee

    not sure what it says about me that this book moved to tears as often as it did... but it was a truly inspiring history of grassroots organizing that virtually kept the Nevada Westside poor alive for nearly 40 years. truly shocking what these mothers achieved in the face of not only systemic racism, misogyny, lack of labor rights, and the least developed safety net in the country, but also downright hostile/villainous welfare administrators who worked against them until the bitter end (when they not sure what it says about me that this book moved to tears as often as it did... but it was a truly inspiring history of grassroots organizing that virtually kept the Nevada Westside poor alive for nearly 40 years. truly shocking what these mothers achieved in the face of not only systemic racism, misogyny, lack of labor rights, and the least developed safety net in the country, but also downright hostile/villainous welfare administrators who worked against them until the bitter end (when they literally burned down Operation Life's offices). it's also an incredible case study on the material impacts of changing federal poverty policy -- that one of the most championed CDCs in the country at the time was no spared from the war on the poor.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    7/5/2019 - update - reread. Excellent book for my course on social activism.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Em

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tristan Williams

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tanya Sevier

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bronte

  25. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sara

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mirella

  28. 4 out of 5

    jinhyouk

  29. 5 out of 5

    Carol Cleaveland

  30. 5 out of 5

    Liz

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