Beacon Press: Storming Caesars Palace
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Storming Caesars Palace

How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

Author: Annelise Orleck

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty and dramatically expanded federal aid to America’s most vulnerable citizens. But California governor Ronald Reagan soon issued a counter cry, declaring war on welfare and big government. Such criticism of welfare has now raged for four decades, convincing most Americans that Johnson’s crusade was an expensive failure. In Storming Caesars Palace, historian Annelise Orleck turns that view on its head, chronicling the saga of welfare mothers in Las Vegas, Nevada, who defied all odds to build one of the country’s most successful antipoverty programs.

These women had migrated west from the Mississippi Delta with thousands of other African Americans in the 1950s, lured by the promise of work in booming casinos and federal defense plants. Living in shacks, tents, and trailers on Las Vegas’s segregated Westside, Delta migrants became the city’s maids, cooks, porters, and laborers. But gambling was a seasonal industry, and every year, thousands of Westside residents were thrown out of work and onto welfare.

In 1971, state politicians, in a bid to make Nevada a leader in the new war on welfare, cut aid to the state’s poor. Westside women fought back, led by the indomitable Ruby Duncan, a hotel maid and mother of seven. That spring, with thousands of welfare mothers and their children at her back and civil rights leaders, peace activists, clergy, and Hollywood celebrities by her side, Duncan stormed the Strip’s most lavish casino hotel, Caesars Palace. Under the glare of television cameras from across the country, Duncan shut down the Strip-riveting the attention of an otherwise protest-weary nation.

The Westside mothers began studying law. They attracted powerful allies and successfully lobbied for federal funds. They even formed their own antipoverty organization, Operation Life, which won millions of dollars in federal contracts to run community programs that included Westside’s first medical center, library, and senior citizen housing. These welfare mothers created job training programs and day care centers and helped poor women develop their own small businesses. For twenty years, Operation Life proved the explosive contention: poverty programs work best when they are run by the poor themselves. By the late 1970s, the Ruby Duncan model for empowering the poor had influenced key policymakers in Washington, D.C., including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Edward Kennedy, and President Jimmy Carter.

Storming Caesars Palace captures the astonishing story of Operation Life’s struggles and triumphs-a compelling illustration of what can be achieved when poor women chart their own course.
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Review: CHOICE - May 10, 2006
"A remarkable story, well told."
Review by: Dorothy Allison, Author of Bastard Out of Carolina - January 1, 2005
"I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed and was inspired by the work Annelise Orleck has done to tell this amazing story. It is wonderful to have the history of the organization, of course, but the women's stories that are knit into the creation of that organization, the stubborn sense of hope and accomplishment she documents, the complex and far-reaching impact of the organizing efforts that each woman undertakes for her own reason-it is like a truly great novel, the revelation of a world unknown."
Review by: Linda Gordon, Author of The Moral Property of Women - January 1, 2005
"Storming Caesars Palace is simultaneously a fascinating narrative and close scrutiny of a social movement that succeeded. Annelise Orleck, a fine storyteller, shows how Las Vegas welfare recipients created a truly pro-life movement, Operation Life, and demonstrated that ordinary people, even extremely poor people, had the energy and the organizational skills to run federal health and nutrition programs"
Review by: Nell Painter, Author of Sojourner Truth - January 1, 2005
"What a lovely book of hope! With grace and with rigor, Annelise Orleck presents the War on Poverty from the vantage point of poor mothers who managed the system efficiently. Working against the assumption that black women must fail, the women of Operation Life made economic democracy real for a quarter of a century in the Jim Crow town of Las Vegas."
Review by: Alice Kessler-Harris, Author of In Pursuit of Equity - January 1, 2005
"This stunning book combines the techniques of collective biography and oral history to document the startling success of economically disadvantaged women at exercising leadership and negotiating political and social minefields. In moving prose, it takes us through the experiences of a group of courageous women whose struggles give new meaning to the notion of history 'from the bottom up' and illuminate the effectiveness of organization at the grass roots. Orleck's protagonists speak to the centrality of the human and humane values that modern concepts of welfare threaten to undermine."
Review by: Jacqueline Jones, Author of Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow - January 1, 2005
"Storming Caesars Palace is a rich, multilayered narrative tracing several dramatic stories. This superb study suggests the potential-and the limits-of grassroots organizations in fighting poverty, employment discrimination, and callous state and national bureaucracies. Along the way, we meet a number of remarkable women, single mothers possessed of an enormous amount of determination and, ultimately, political savvy. Their struggles have much to teach us about gender, racial, and class ideologies in modern America."

Storming Caesars Palace

ISBN: 978-080705032-3
Publication Date: 8/15/2005
Pages: 376
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $29.95
Format: Cloth
Availability: In stock.
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