A conversation with Annelise Orleck about her book, “Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty”
In January 1971, the state of Nevada—following an experiment launched by California governor Ronald Reagan—had slashed welfare benefits, catapulting single mothers and their families from poverty to near-starvation. Women who were minimum wage workers in the Las Vegas hospitality, entertainment, and gambling industry—even then, a multi-billion-dollar business—watched their children go hungry.
But Nevada hadn’t reckoned with what these women knew how to do. Migrants from the Jim Crow South, they had faced down tougher bosses and crueler state officials. Although Las Vegas was a racist city it was also a union town. As union members these mothers not only knew they had rights, but they had experience fighting for them.
More importantly, by 1971, there was a social movement for women supplementing their earnings with, or living on, welfare. In 1964, Wiley and Los Angeles mother Johnnie Tillmon had launched a national organization that linked together autonomous chapters of poor mothers to fight for the benefits that had been promised to them by federal law. It was called the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO.) In 1967, that movement reached Las Vegas. Rosie Seals and Alversa Beals, using the organizing techniques they had learned in a lifetime of agricultural labor and service work, their wisdom as mothers, and their determination to make life better, started the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization (CCWRO).
So, when Nevada withdrew those welfare benefits, the women of Clark County knew what to do. As one national organizer had explained to Ruby Duncan, the only way to fight back was “to hit them in the pocketbook.”
Duncan, now president of the CCWRO, contacted Tillmon and Wiley for help, and with Maya Miller of the National League of Women Voters, the group planned Operation Nevada, a massive series of demonstrations designed to bring Las Vegas’s famous strip—it’s gambling, entertainment, leisure hotels, and all-night free buffets—to a screaming halt.
Because that strip, as Duncan explained to historian Annelise Orleck two decades later, was the pocketbook. It was, she said, “the main vein.”
Orleck told the story of these women, a few of the thousands of mothers organized in hundreds of welfare rights chapters across the country, in her 2006 book Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. The book is now a PBS documentary directed by Hazel Gurland-Pooler and released in March 2023.
But there are other reasons to return to this book. It describes a part of the African American civil rights movement that many people don’t know—perhaps because it was run, and the battles were fought, by Black women who saw their activism as an extension of their commitment as mothers.
Or maybe we don’t know their story because it’s not the story of oppression and dependency that the enemies of government programs like to tell. The Clark County Welfare Rights Organization called their project Operation Life, and they literally brought their community to life with cultural programs, healthcare, childcare, and job training that they devised, built, and ran themselves.
Yes, the women of Clark County fought for their right to receive welfare, and to not be shamed by it. But they also used their organizing and fundraising skills to create the institutions their community needed to thrive. They lifted themselves out of poverty.
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