Fifty-two years ago, welfare rights activist Ruby Duncan and fellow protestors twice shut down gambling on the Las Vegas Strip to protest deep cuts in welfare for children and families. At the time, Nevada had the second-lowest welfare benefits in the United States while it was one of the richest states in the nation.
A documentary—Storming Caesars Palace— directed by Hazel Gurland-Pooler, chronicles the visionary work of Ruby Duncan and that of other low-income Black mothers who fought for guaranteed income and built a grass-roots antipoverty movement.
The 86-minute film will have its broadcast premiere on PBS on Monday, March 20, at 10 p.m. Eastern time (check your local PBS station for broadcast times). It is part of the Indie Lens Pop-Up series, presented by ITVS, Independent Lens. Following the premiere, the film will also be available for streaming through June 17 via the PBS app.
The film is also available to Dartmouth community members on campus or remote via VPN, through Dartmouth’s library.
The documentary is based on the book, Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty by Annelise Orleck, professor of history. Published in 2005 by Beacon Press, the book will be reissued with a new introduction and epilogue in April to coincide with the PBS telecast.
“Ruby Duncan’s work was driven by, and remained rooted in, the belief that poor mothers are the real experts on poverty,” says Orleck. “When it came to building movements for economic justice, developing policy, and running programs to alleviate poverty, these women believed that ‘We can do it and do it better.’ And they did.”
The documentary illustrates how Duncan has overcome tremendous adversity throughout her life. Born in 1932, Duncan tells her story of growing up in the backwoods of Tallulah, La., in a sharecropping family. She went to school through ninth grade but had to leave school each year in April to chop cotton, something that she absolutely hated. One day, she lay down in the cotton fields to take a break and she had a dream—someday, she would speak in front of thousands of people in a place faraway—a dream that ultimately came true.
Duncan left rural life behind in 1952 and moved to Las Vegas in Clark County, Nev. It was a place where Black women could find jobs in the back of the house in casinos and hotels. She found work as a short order cook at the Sahara Hotel but serious injuries from an accident on the job and periodic hospitals stays left her unable to support her seven children. She had to make the difficult decision to seek public benefits but she asked the Welfare Department in Clark County to help her find work. And when they didn’t, she told her story to a local news reporter.
One of Duncan’s friends suggested that she get involved with the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization, the local chapter of an advocacy and outreach group for welfare mothers that was then building chapters across the country. This spurred her career in activism and in 1968, she was named president of the organization.
In following Duncan’s journey, the documentary features some of the women whom she collaborated with, who defied notions of the “welfare queen.”
“Ruby Duncan, Alversa Beals, Mary Wesley, and the other extraordinary women, who were active members of the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization in Nevada, who are featured both in the film and in my book, really humanized the discussion that was taking place in the 1970s on poverty and feeding children and families,” says Orleck. “And I think that their stories can still have that impact.”
As the film recounts, in 1971, Nevada became a test case for pushing people off welfare. One-third of welfare recipients were thrown off welfare entirely; one-third had their benefits slashed; and one-third saw slight increases in their welfare checks. Even those who were allowed to stay on the rolls had to deal with the dreaded “midnight raids,” in which social workers appeared at their homes in the middle of the night; if a man was found in the house, that was grounds for fraud charges (because the state saw any man as a “substitute father”) and could result in the state eliminating a woman’s welfare benefits. This led to a class action lawsuit which eventually put an end to the raids when the Supreme Court struck them down in 1968.
Duncan realized that something had to be done: they had to fight back. “There was such a cash flow from gambling on the Vegas Strip: Nevada was the only state in the country where prostitution and gambling were legal, and the state received tax revenue from those activities,” says Orleck. “So Ruby decided they were going to storm Caesars Palace because it was one of the main venues, as well as an icon of conspicuous consumption in the United States.”
The documentary shows how Duncan partnered with George Wiley, director of the National Welfare Rights Organization, on her plan, dubbed “Operation Nevada,” to shut down the strip.
“To ensure that they would not be hurt during the protest, the team decided that they needed some famous people to join them, so they engaged them: writer and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, actors Sammy Davis Jr. and Donald Sutherland, actress Jane Fonda, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and others,” says Orleck.
On March 6, 1971, 1,000 protesters stormed Caesars Palace and successfully shut down gambling for the day. The following week, they marched to the Sands Hotel but were unable to get in as planned, so they staged a sit-in on the Strip. They vowed to keep protesting until welfare benefits were reinstated.
Two weeks later, Nevada restored welfare benefits on order of a federal court and issued retroactive payments to recipients.
But one year later, Orleck says that the state came up with another reason for knocking them off welfare rolls once again.
In 1972, Duncan and Wesley established a community development corporation called Operation Life, which ran a child care center, a lunch program, library, and the first medical clinic in the community, which offered early diagnostic screenings for children that literally saved lives. One of the women in the group would drive her station wagon to women’s houses and bring the kids in for screenings. The result was that the Operation Life Health Center screened a higher percentage of eligible children than any federally funded pediatric clinic in the nation—a remarkable feat for a group of poor mothers with little formal education and one that got the attention of Casper Weinberger, then the secretary of health, education and welfare.
“For 20 years, Operation Life launched real generational mobility,” says Orleck. “Although they were pushed out by the government in the end, I think it’s a model of how we can approach poverty programs in a much more humane and productive and efficient way.”
Orleck says she thinks the film will be useful, especially for students who ask her whose shoulders they can stand on in making social change.
“When my book first came out in 2005, it was post-Hurricane Katrina, and it was at a real moment of despair in terms of grassroots activism in the U.S. although incredible work was being done in Louisiana,” says Orleck.
“Now we live in a very different time. There is tremendous activism on all levels and around issues of poverty and a lack of a living wage, and reaffirming the social safety net. As Republicans vow to cut food assistance to poor children, the story of the women of Operation Life is more relevant than ever,” says Orleck.