Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty
Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty
By Annelise Orleck. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. 368 pp. Cloth, $29.95, ISBN 0-8070-5032-6).
Reviewed by Caitlin Crowell.
By the 1960s, the surging U.S. West and Southwest became new centers for an old debate, states' rights. Increasingly cast as a Republican issue, it was a perfect fit for Nevada, long a bastion of resistance to federal intervention. As in the South, though, this ostensible libertarianism in fact hid, or tried to hide, a racist agenda. Federal monies were fine when they brought high-tech jobs and white visitors and citizens to the region, but once they went to fund Aid to Families with Dependent Children programs and Work Incentive job training, and the African Americans who might take advantage of these opportunities, the state legislature refused help from Washington. As a result, Nevada lagged far behind other states in welfare benefits to poor families, and fell to last when it came to providing employment training-it had, speculated a legal services lawyer, "maybe one of the most neanderthal organizations in the whole country." (133) Indeed, the entire state Social Services system actively undercut the poor people it was meant to serve, and often it contradicted federal guidelines in the process. "I don't take my orders from the Supreme Court," one Las Vegas welfare caseworker proudly declared. (134)
For years, such a stance constituted policy in the welfare bureaus of Nevada. Until, that is, poor women organized to demand their human rights and their entitlements as citizens. "Outside agitators," in the angry and panicked view of state legislators, stirred otherwise lazy and manageable local welfare recipients up. But, in fact, national figures like Johnnie Tillmon of the National Welfare Rights Organization only inspired local organizers like Ruby Duncan. "She was like a hurricane right next to you," gushed one coworker of the dynamic organizer in the poor women's movement in Las Vegas and Clark County. (258)
The national movement lent strength and provided information to Nevada women, but it was the local genius of the Clark County organizers that made the program so effective-and so long-lived. Self-taught, they organized a campaign to combat the state's relentless denial of opportunity to poor and particularly black women. As a highlight of their early rights struggle, welfare mothers stormed Caesars Palace, which had long denied them entrance, first on the grounds of race and later because of their poverty. Thousands strong, they filled the casino with themselves, their children, and national figures like Jane Fonda and Benjamin Spock, whose presence ensured that the bright lights of publicity and scrutiny shone on the city's discriminatory hiring policies and inadequate human services. But the organizers' grand accomplishment was the Operation Life community center. Perhaps only in Las Vegas could the county welfare rights organization transform the fading splendor of a place like the Moulin Rouge, a shuttered casino whose brief glory had been as the city's only explicitly interracial club, into a community welfare center. Instead of champagne and poker chips, the tables now saw Versie Beals's chicken and cornbread, sustenance for the organization as activists planned how to offer the city's poor much-needed services, right there amidst the old casino's ghosts.
The women developed a health clinic and a library, both of which turned out, despite fierce resistance from the county, to be tremendous successes. Civil rights organizer Julian Bond supported them; Secretary of Health and Human Services Caspar Weinberger praised them; Muhammad Ali visited them, signing autographs and extolling the virtues of what were, by 1975, the most successful community action programs in the state, and in many cases, the nation. As the decade went on, Operation Life provided childcare, education, employment counseling, mortgage advising, senior housing, and handicapped accessibility assistance; if the community had a need, Ruby Duncan and Versie Beals and their coworkers would find out and find funding to fill it. For almost a quarter century, they did just that.
Storming Caesar's Palace complicates the story of federal welfare policy, and the ever-changing stances the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and even the ultimately devastating Reagan administrations took. It also helps untangle the relationship between federal and state welfare policies. It does so while reminding readers that the whole Byzantine structure was most effectively navigated by poor women who lacked education but had abundant compassion and an urgent desire for change. That meant talking to Congress in Washington as well going door to door in Las Vegas, exhorting women to take advantage of health care and hot lunches and voting opportunities available to them. For the reader, it serves as a reminder of how, and how much, activists and coalition-builders can accomplish, even in the face of preposterous odds.
Storming Caesar's Palace complements work like Linda Gordon's Pitied But Not Entitled-studies of how welfare activism has challenged and in many cases defined our ideas of rights.[Note 1] Too, this could be read alongside an international literature of women's organizing and human rights work, as an example of activists setting the terms of debate, and changing the way issues and their lives are framed. For all the direct assistance, perhaps the most important contribution these women made was discursive: using their experiences as teaching tools, they insisted that women and their children bore the greatest costs of economic crisis. Mothers, they explained, had to be at the heart of welfare policy, and it had to be a policy that encompassed women's desire and need to work and their need to raise their children in safe and healthy environments. Their arguments, even when they failed to persuade, laid out a powerful critique of popular thinking, and provide a model for social services workers-now, as they did in the 1960s-1980s.
That Orleck has written a book beautifully humanizing women struggling for change is unsurprising; her Common Sense and a Little Fire, a study of industrial feminists and the politics of early women's labor organizing, brought to light the complex lives of organizers like Rose Schneidermann and Pauline Newman. As that book did, Storming Caesars Palace offers us a cast upon whom we can draw for inspiration, for caution, for understanding of how one works for change. Ruby Duncan, Alversa Beals, Rosie Seals-as so often happens when reading about women activists, one wishes that these were household names.
In a way, Orleck's work might be cast as old-fashioned: she recuperates the early women's history project of contribution history. Here are women organizers to add to the still largely male labor historiography; here are poor workers to complicate top-heavy studies of the War on Poverty; here are blacks in the strange and glittering world of Las Vegas, a city in which few have looked for African American history. This "white man's paradise" depended on African Americans for everything from construction to service-not unlike countless other places that have become white men's paradises precisely by being hell on black people. But we have women like the organizers of Operation Life to thank for a new interpretation of this paradise-one that is inclusive and just and humane.
Caitlin Love Crowell is a doctoral candidate at Yale University, where her advisor is Glenda Gilmore. Her dissertation, "Love Stories: The Intimate Lives of Black Women Activists, 1880-1950," looks at the ways African American women managed their personal lives, their families, their friendships, and their sexualities.
[page [NA], note 1] 1 Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935 (New York: Free Press, 1994.) [return to text]