Annelise Orleck on "Storming Caesar's Palace" and the Lessons of the Welfare Rights MovementNews at Home
tags: poverty, African American history, urban history, Las Vegas, War on Poverty, Protest, Welfare Rights Movement
Annelise Orleck is Professor of History at Dartmouth College and the author of several books on American women immigrants, workers and political activists, including “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages (2018). Her acclaimed 2005 book Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, which tells the story of the leadership, tenacity and political creativity of poor Black women in Las Vegas in the 1960s and 1970s, has recently been released in an updated edition from Beacon Press. Prof. Orleck is also featured in the new Independent Lens documentary by the same name directed by Hazel Gurland Pooler, which is now streaming on PBS. Professor Orleck recently joined HNN editor Michan Connor by Zoom for a broad-ranging conversation about the welfare rights movement, the history of poverty policy, and the experience of revising a book about the welfare state after the Great Recession and the COVID pandemic.
This transcript has been edited for clarity. Pet-related interruptions have been retained for authenticity.
MC: Hi how are we doing today?
AO: I'm good how are you?
MC: I'm great, thanks for joining me here
AO: well yeah no it's my pleasure.
MC: I really enjoyed getting a chance to read Storming Caesar’s Palace and the documentary is just remarkable so I'm happy to have this conversation and I think that our readers are going to enjoy reading about it as well. If you excuse me for just one minute my dog has come in here and I've got to evict her….
I imagine we’ll probably have a lot to cover and…
AO: I had to evict my cat she just bit me….
MC: The animals are that working from home hazard that nobody really tells you about….
I think there's a lot to dig into in this story because it's a book that really covers not just the welfare rights movement in the 1970s but it really shows Las Vegas as a junction point of a lot of important trends in 20th century U.S. history and it speaks really, really directly to a lot of concerns that have reemerged today about the precarity of labor, about the relationship of gender and reproductive freedom to economic independence, to you know, racism in the American workforce, we could go on and on.
But I think the best way to probably approach it is to ask you to talk a little bit about the person who is the main character in a lot of ways of your book, and certainly the documentary—there are many other figures that are a little bit more prominently discussed in the book—but Ruby Duncan is really the protagonist of the documentary that [PBS] produced, and I'm wondering if you could just explain for our readers a little bit about who she is and certainly first how she came to be in Las Vegas and that part of her story.
AO: OK! Ruby is one of the last sharecroppers. She grew up on the Ivory Plantation in Tallulah, Louisiana in the Delta, and lost her parents very young—I think she was two—and she was picking cotton. She was living with relatives and she, like most of the other women in this story the beginning point of their activism is this determination that they will move beyond the cotton fields, and that their children will never pick cotton, and so at 12 the book begins with Ruby having this daydream, she’s really tired, and she lays down and tries to get a little rest in the cotton fields, has this dream it's a dream but it's during the day where she sees herself in front of a long line of people and leading a leading a movement; you know it's prescient, it’s also something that a teenager or preteen might dream about, but she always knew she wanted to do something.
Now people who were active, and, you know looking for something better in Tallulah and a couple of other nearby Delta towns had started to migrate to Vegas, after the first group of men went in the 30s to work on the Boulder [now Hoover] Dam, because federal employment was less discriminatory, and Black men could get decently paid work, and then with the with the birth of Vegas in the 40s and the beginnings, I think the Flamingo was the first in ‘47 of the Strip hotels [the Flamingo opened December 26, 1946-ed], there was a movement to go out there and try to get some jobs. so Ruby was 19, she had a new baby and another baby,who had been conceived in rape, who was already in Las Vegas, living with her with her aunt. And she just decided the time had come to go, right she was gonna join them try to make a little extra money for the family for her kids and so that's how she ended up there, but it was part of the larger migration.
It wasn't just Ruby, there had been just a handful of Black workers really you can tie the migration to the six guys who first went out to work on the Boulder Dam, and then during the war a lot of people went out to work in the Basic Magnesium defense plant making weapons for World War II US service members, and Ruby, you know was part of that, that those folks who came out of the cotton fields. Some of them were also recruited, they were recruited by those federal government initiatives but little bit later and this would matter to Ruby, they were recruited by the union, by the Culinary Workers Union, and their business agent Sarah Hughes, who was one of the first Black woman business agents in the labor movement, and you know she told them you can make you know, make in a day what you make in a week here and you’re not working in the sun. So People were excited and Ruby is really a part of that migration.
MC: I think that that that brings us to some other important questions too, that, you know, we don't usually think of Las Vegas as a receiving point of the great migration but of course you know we can we can trace those pathways for people like Ruby and for others that came that way. They did discover, though, you emphasize this in the book quite a bit, that Las Vegas in some ways could have been called the Mississippi of the West, as a highly segregated and underdeveloped place for African American migrants. So we can talk a little about that, I suppose, what did it mean for people to find themselves in West Las Vegas?
AO: West Las Vegas was shockingly underdeveloped, especially in the 50s when you were starting to get the glamour of the strip as a kind of icon across the country of postwar prosperity. The west side of Las Vegas, as one of the leading activists in the movement Mary Wesley found, looked like it was a bunch of chicken coops. She really she didn't think people were living in those houses. They were you know houses built of wire and tar paper and people had had blankets for doors and sometimes for floors and you know swamp coolers you know with damp clothes in front of fans you know cooling these houses which is no joke in a city where….
MC: 115 degrees…
AO: yeah it could become 115 in the summer so the conditions were bad and that [brief interruption]….
MC: We were talking about West Las Vegas and its chronic underdevelopment. One thing that that seemed to be of the migrants that were coming into West Las Vegas that we talked about another piece of this this story is, they were going to work in hotels and casinos and to be brought into the hotel and culinary employees union, and something that you give a good deal of attention to in in your book is the political economy of work in these growing hotels on the strip and you know in some ways it was possible to earn what would have been fantastic wages for migrants, but you do emphasize that there were some limits to what being represented by the union could accomplish for black women workers especially.
AO: Yeah, I mean the union was both an important ally and an ally they had to push. So you know there were limits to what the unions themselves could do because the union head Al Bramlet had made agreements especially with mob-owned casinos that they wouldn’t strike, in exchange for which he expected his workers to get better wages than any non-union workers in hotels across the country were getting, and somewhat decent conditions, some limits on how many rooms a day they had to clean, and the union would advocate for them when that didn't happen.
So I tell a story in here when Ruby came back into hotel work after she left her husband. She had seven kids and she was told suddenly to work at night, because a convention was coming in, she said, no I finished my shift and I have seven kids at home, I can't do that. So they fired her and Sarah Hughes, the business agent, came in and negotiated for her and she got her job back and Ruby said “slavery is over,” so class solidarity and the union movement, and it's the first time that, in Ruby’s words, that they could be doing some demanding, right for years, as you know, field workers, as maids, as single mothers, everybody demanded things of them, in terms of labor in terms of proof of their propriety, and all sorts of other things and so the labor movement, being able to get into the union was important.
Now there were limits; so they couldn't strike, and when they finally did in ‘76 Al Bramlet ended up dead, so that was clearly a bargain that the mob bosses did not want him to break, but the unions collaborated to some degree in the segregation of the workforce so that black workers were back of the house workers not to be seen—kitchen workers, hotel housekeepers car jockeys, porters—and white workers worked at the craps tables and they were cocktail waitresses and servers and they made a good deal more money.
Now to be fair, Al Bramlet tried to put Mary Wesley in as the first black cocktail waitress, and the end she feared, with all her kids, she would mess it up and she also feared that if there was flirting by white men, that it would cause some kind of riots, so you know the union was ambivalent on that.
Where they really had to push the union was in opening up middle management jobs, opening up, especially for women workers, jobs that have been traditionally male that didn't require a high school degree, but that you could really get a decent wage on, so they had a series of join-ins in the unions and they ended up getting women jobs as car jockeys and then they later got women on road crews and on sanitation trucks so they, that was a really big issue for them, to get jobs that had been traditionally male and ultimately Ruby would lobby on that issue during the Carter administration when she helped draft some rules for programs with Alexis Herman, who was Carter’s Secretary of Labor.
MC: All right, so to draw it back a little bit to the casinos again, one thing that that struck me in your analysis was that aside from being the very largest employers for a great many of these years, I don't know if this is changed I think Vegas is more of a year-round town now, but it was it was very seasonal, which is something that you emphasize, and that kind of gets us to the point where the Clark County welfare department comes into play here because you write that, these casinos could employ lots of people but there would be a pink slip season at the end of the fall tourist season all the time, and the county and public assistance was a part of this political economy that made the city work, that instead of having a transient labor force where the people would be laid off and leave, the welfare authorities were able to ensure that the casinos had a stable but seasonal workforce in that the public was able to pick up a very small part of the slack to help people survive.
And that gets us to talking about where particularly black women, but poor women and working women in Las Vegas at this time, the kinds of contact that they're having with the welfare office and the nature of those contacts in the 1960s, before this before this movement kind of takes off.
So what would you say about the nature of those interactions and the role that that these officers played in people's lives?
AO: Yeah, I think that's an important point and some of the radical scholars of that era, including two of the co-founders of the National Welfare Rights Organization, Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, who made clear that that the welfare program was used to benefit employers, right, who wanted a low wage, stable workforce. So for the women in Las Vegas it enabled them to keep feeding their kids during times when they were laid off, and enabled them to be available in the area to come back on to those jobs. They had… you move, you have a lot of kids, you don't want to take them out of school. People tended to stay in Vegas.
What interactions did they have? They had largely miserable ones. There were the county offices that controlled the commodities food program, and Ruby Duncan talked about it, they would bring them to the courthouse steps. There was an infamous administrator by the name of Stella Fleming who ran that program, and they you know the families getting surplus cheese and peanut butter and bread and whatever they were given through this the commodities program would have to wait at the bottom of the courthouse steps and Stella and other officials would call them up by name, one by one, and you know Ruby would later say that it reminded her of the end of the planting season when the hogs would be slaughtered on the plantation and the owners would give out the innards only to the sharecroppers. She felt that this was, again, an attempt to humiliate them, to show the largess of the county, and she really hated it and it was out of those encounters that she began to think about how could poor families, poor mothers shop for their kids in stores, and give their kids what they thought was best, and get their kids fresh food in the way that all parents did, and not be singled out like that.
So there was that incident. There were times going to the Clark County welfare office run by Vince Fallon, where they would be questioned about were there any men in their life, and about boyfriends and really challenged, and really made to feel bad and here again I think those out of those encounters grew what would be some of the first actions of the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization, where they demanded to see the manual. They wanted to know what the regulations were; they didn't want this invisible force controlling their lives and they also began to find out what their federal rights were and what questions they could be asked and couldn't be asked.
And I think one of the most hated things, that was ended in ‘68 by a federal Supreme Court decision, but one of the most hated things were the “man in the house” raids where caseworkers would come into the house in the middle of the night and look for any signs of a man and you know, as their sons grew older that would have been complicated enough but when their kids were little it was frightening. I later learned from Nevada social workers that George Miller [appointed Nevada’s Welfare Director in 1968] insisted they go on those midnight raids carrying loaded guns, something they did not want to do because they were afraid they would maybe shoot a kid if someone jumped out at them, and so the man in the house raids were extremely hated, and they were part of the struggle that resulted in King v. Smith in 68 which overturned the man in the house rule—you couldn't just take any man who happened to be in the house and say “you're a substitute father, you have to pay for these kids,” which was the logic behind this. So those encounters directly shaped the kind of activism they would be involved in a few years later.
MC: I think that's really important to underscore, and it strikes me, you know, reading, and this is not a novel observation, but these women are caught in essentially between two different sort of sexist formations, and one of them that you talk about is that even as the Great Society and the War on Poverty take off, a lot of these programs are aimed at providing men with more stable and better paid employment on the presumption that they will then be the economic heads of households which you know, can be seen as coercive to women in staying in relationships, and the stories of the women in your book demonstrate that whether it's you know alcohol abuse, or physical abuse, or desertion, or you know, in Las Vegas the temptations of drinking and gambling, that then make these men poor partners in childbearing and marriage, on the one hand you know women are penalized for not making the choice to stay in the dangerous domestic situation or even an undesirable one, and then on the other hand they're stigmatized, and lose their benefits, if they you know enter into any other domestic partnership while they are trying to receive public assistance, and this is such a Catch-22, that a you know intellectually I think we understand that this was the way that the system operated but you know the stories in this in this documentary and in your book and in particularly you know seeing the voices of women themselves, which the archival footage of this documentary is really remarkable, demonstrating and delivering an analysis of this very situation is really striking, and it does you know kind of lead to a point that that you make throughout the book which I guess bears emphasizing as well: that these women are in a lot of ways the experts on being poor and on living and surviving in poverty, yet their knowledge and their understanding is kind of ignored at every turn if not just treated with contempt, which is a way that you describe it.
So, I don’t mean to derail the discussion there because we're talking about the growth of some of these protests and the actions aimed at getting specifically fairer treatment from the local public assistance authorities, and this sort of leads toward talking about the way that Ruby's activism and activism of other women in Las Vegas escalates beyond making sure that that the rules are fairly and uniformly enforced, to a little more confrontational direct action on the scale that that builds up to “Storming Caesar’s Palace” and I think maybe, it's maybe at this point, something that's driving the story forward, you mentioned George Miller, who if Ruby Duncan is the hero in the story or the main character, he stands in as an antagonist. So what’s he brought in to do in Nevada and Clark County?
AO: Well George Miller, like Vince Fallon, who ran the Las Vegas welfare office, were welfare state liberals, they were Democrats, they were originally, George Miller came up in the Job Corps program, and when I interviewed him he was very proud of his quote “taming wild boys,” and in particular talked about his relationship with the boxer George Foreman [Miller supervised Foreman in a Job Corps camp], and so Miller was, you know he had been an Okie, been homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, he’d been in the National Youth Administration New Deal programs. He believed in the welfare state but he really believed in, as so many welfare state liberals did, know money as you said giving money to male heads of household.
The idea is to maintain the normal family structure and he didn’t know what to do with women. At the same time he also was increasingly drawn away from his earlier allegiance to Kennedy and Johnson, by a late 60s early 70s—I guess end of the 60s—conference he went to California when Governor Ronald Reagan talked about the need to end “pay for play” and begin to really you know root out welfare fraud and George Miller came back to Nevada with this idea that he couldn’t lose, which was that he was going to be the person who showed how this could be done; it couldn't be done in New York or California or Illinois, or even Massachusetts where you had so many people it would be an earthquake, right?
But in Nevada, it was a small enough group of people that you could probably pull this off. Now when Mike O’Callaghan [another War on Poverty veteran who was elected Governor in 1970] was elected, the women organized for him in West Las Vegas, they helped get him elected and they did not expect him to support Miller and to have this guy, you know who started cutting people off the rolls, and so you know they would later pressure O’Callaghan himself.
But O’Callaghan stood with him and I think you know that's emblematic of the way in which in some ways even the Democratic parties started to run away from the war on poverty almost as soon as it was enacted, and that you know part of the reason for that was local politicians state and municipal and county feeling like you know the war on poverty programs stirred up revolution in their own backyards, and caused them trouble, so it's not entirely surprising that O’Callaghan stuck with Miller but he did.
And so that was what Miller thought he would do. He thought he would make a name for himself in this new movement, epitomized by Ronald Reagan, he was completely smitten with Reagan, and he did.
So that's why national welfare rights organization is drawn in as powerfully as it is, because its leadership, George Wiley, Johnnie Tillman, Beulah Sanders, Piven and Cloward, all believe that this is where we have to make our stand otherwise we're going to start to see this in places like New York and Illinois and California.
MC: OK. so there's an escalating campaign of direct action as national activists come in so there's a lot that happens in the story in the book but I'm wondering if you can take us from here, from the beginning of this nationalization of welfare politics in Las Vegas through the NWRO and activists and celebrity allies coming in here, to some of the climactic events, to some of the really major direct action and civil disobedience actions.
AO: Absolutely. So you know they start out in 67-68 is when Ruby becomes President of the Clark County Welfare Rights, Rosie Seals and Alversa Beals had started a year earlier but Rosie Seals wasn’t healthy enough to run it, so Ruby takes over and very quickly is helped by women in the National League of Women Voters, Maya Miller in particular, but others, Harriet Trudell, to make sense of the different branches of government and which programs each branch controlled and how literally what impact each branch’s rules and politicians had on the lives of their families and poor families.
And you know it's that moment that Ruby learned to lobby in Carson City, and confronts Ralph Lamb the head of the Ways and Means committee in Carson City, the state Senate, and says, you know if it wasn't for you I could have shoes for my children, and that's really an important moment, right, where the structure of government and the personnel of government are connected literally to one of the most traumatic days of every year for these women, when they have to send their kids to school without decent shoes.
And so Ruby’s electrified by that, and she realizes you could organize around that, so she starts going to the national board meetings in Washington, DC and meets Johnnie Tillman and Beulah Sanders, the leaders of the movement, and she says Johnnie Tillman and Beulah Sanders taught me one thing: we don't have power unless we hit people in the pocketbook, right, and so that idea really stays with her, and in those days especially there wasn't much between McCarran airport, the strip and the West side right so she went straight from the airport she's driving up the strip at night and she goes “Oh my God this is the main vein. This is the pocket. If I can shut it down, well I've got something going.”
So when everybody is cut off and things are really dire in January 1970, when thousands of people are cut off the welfare rolls in Nevada, she goes back and talks to Wylie and the national leadership, not only Tillman and Sanders with their pocketbook argument, but also Wiley, Piven and Cloward, who are interested creating some kind of crisis in the streets, so that the system would respond to this need of poor families in more humane ways.
They all thought, OK we're gonna do this, so the first thing that they do is in February, 1970, they twice go into the welfare office in Las Vegas and demand to speak to Vince Fallon. There’s some archival footage of that occupation in the film, and they again, wanna see the welfare manual, right. They want the right to go into meetings with other people and they particularly are focused, with the help of their legal services attorneys Jack Anderson and Mahlon Brown, a former casino pit boss who becomes a legal services attorney, they’re particularly focused on a 1970 Supreme Court Decision Goldberg v. Kelly, which says that welfare is not a gratuity, their language, welfare is an entitlement of citizenship, and you can’t cut them off without a hearing.
So they want to demand those hearings, and there's a moment where Mary Wesley, who you know supposedly was big and bad, she was bigger than the other women, but I never found her anything but really sweet, anyway she carries the welfare director down the stairs (she’s strong). And the idea is that he wont’ meet with them, so the women want him to meet with his constituents on the street and talk to them, so they carry him down the stairs, an act that they’re very amused by many, many years later, because again, it breaks through the feeling of helplessness and other people controlling your life. So that's the beginning.
And by this point Operation Nevada has been declared by the National Welfare Rights Organization, and they're bringing in attorneys, law students, and young attorneys and legal services folks and welfare moms from all across the country and NWRO workers, and they're all going to try to help people with their cases and to be reinstated on welfare, but they're also planning, they want a deadline, and if they're not reinstated they’re gonna shut down the strip, Ruby’s idea.
So March 6, 1971, they have got a wild assortment of not only their own people in the movement, Ruby and Mary Wesley and Alversa Beals, the leaders of the movement are all right there marching along with a leader from the north, a white woman by the name of Johanna “Cookie” Bustamonte, who was part of a group that had been pressured to become a sex worker, because that was legal in northern Nevada, and the state was pushing them, they had evidence that county case workers were pushing them into sex work….
MC: Oh, so those discussions were actually happening in caseworker meetings?
MC: OK, there's testimony in that documentary of Cookie Bustamonte saying, you know, they're telling you might as well go out on the streets and sell yourself—It was not clear from that that that was an actual instruction from a caseworker which is… wow… that’s something.
AO: Yes, that’s in the book! And, yeah, that’s something that’s really shocking to the women and you know that's a real moment in their political coming to consciousness because they said to me you know it just never occurred to us that there could be white people who had some things worse than we did, and they were really struck by the living conditions of women on aid in the north, where it's snowy, look at, my God, it’s under feet of snow still right now, so you know, the West side conditions were bad enough but the conditions in the north were terrible and the fact of them being pushed into sex work was shocking, so they came down, welfare moms came from all over the country and as well as poor women have done you know historically, the garment workers did it in New York in 1910, they got some wealthy powerful people to march with them, to try to make sure no one would shoot them. And so, most famously Jane Fonda is at the center of all the pictures, she came to march with them, Donald Sutherland came to march with them, Doctor Spock, Benjamin Spock came to march with them, Cesar Chavez, Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, so they had a lot of folks—Gloria Steinem—you know people who they were fairly sure would not be attacked.
By this point Ruby had been assured by William Weinberger of Caesar’s Palace that she shouldn’t worry that, you know, he was going to make sure nobody shot them. So she had that assurance, and I think it’s interesting that there was some support in the casino elite.
So they shut down—they do something that, this never been done—they marched into Caesars Palace, they shut down gambling, and the Flamingo, they shut down the strip for an hour, which you know, that's a dollar attack right, that they very clearly could calculate how much money people lost and you know the Washington Post and the New York Times, and there was coverage of you Mary Wesley’s son Allen with his little sign above the craps tables at Caesar’s saying “Nevada Starves Children.”
So they got a lot of attention, but it hadn't been resolved by the next week and it's been a few months by this point and people are hungry, right and nurses coming into the West Side are finding signs of rickets which is a disease of long term malnutrition, not short term, and so they decide to shut down the strip again and this time they're gonna go into the Sands, but the doors have been locked because supposedly the person who's supposed to unlock it from within hit a jackpot and never did, but in any case they decide to sit down on the strip and block traffic and apparently they blocked it, the movie says to the Nevada-California border. Mary Wesley liked to say all the way to L.A., but in any case they cause a major disruption, 86 people were arrested, and the women and the Franciscan clergy that have been increasingly involved in their movement are all jailed.
And that march maybe has a little more of an impact, and a week later a federal judge answers the class action suit and says that Nevada has run roughshod over the rights of the poor and you have to reinstate everybody, but in the very next year they're doing everything they can to throw people off again, and they do. But at this point the women are thinking, hmm, this works right, direct action works, we like this and so that's when they begin showing up in the governor's mansion, because again they worked for O’Callaghan, they thought that as voters they had a right to show up and they wouldn't leave, and that's when O’Callaghan starts to say to them, you know you should be working the system from inside. Well, they don't do that right away, you know because they turn off the rolls again and people are hungry and there's no food stamp program in Nevada at this point….
MC: I was going to say, too, that Nevada hasn’t adopted food stamps at this point as well, which I think one of the most clever… and the documentary really visualizes this, that it becomes, not just a protest but this this moment of almost joy in reclaiming this power, where the women bring their families into the buffets and the restaurants in the strip hotels and just you know that they execute a mass dine-and-dash campaign or you know refusal to pay for the food that been served, dramatizing that that these casinos are willing to throw vast amounts of excellent food at gamblers as an enticement to this economic system and yet the state won't participate in federal food assistance that people need and you know that was just a really kind of remarkable episode as well in carrying this on.
So I had not known about those kinds of actions before but there, it’s a very powerful kind of moment there as well.
AO: Absolutely and what’s interesting is they end up moving the ownership of the Stardust, who delivers—again this is philanthropy, the women wanted rights—he ends up delivering Turkey dinners on Thanksgiving for years to the West side, right, there's something about it that does get through to the people and yes you're right that that's a very particular focus right, food aid, this is something that they highlight because there's all this challenge against them that oh you know, you're violent, you're in the streets, you're causing all these troubles, and they really really really really, Ruby and Mary Wesley, really highlight Coretta Scott King’s aphorism that “violence is a hungry child” with the eat-ins.
They also have read-ins in whites-only libraries right, there's no libraries… so the direct action phase of the movement, in 71-72, is really quite vibrant and they're also trying to figure out how to get a medical facility into their community, so they're taking buses out to Sunrise Hospital which was hours from their neighborhood, but trying to figure out how federal dollars work, and then they take Mike O’Callaghan's admonition to start working the system to heart….
MC: I had just wanted to bring it back to that question, so here we go….
AO: Great! so Ruby is absolutely brilliant at being able to figure out where all these federal programs are, right, and so you know she goes to Washington and stays with Maya Miller there and she's literally walking the halls finding new programs, taking leaflets, figuring out what she needs, what she thinks they ought to apply for. They decide they want to apply for….
Well, let me finish the food stamps story first. So the food stamp story is of course that after the eat-ins, they try a different tack, which is that they realize that the legislature really doesn't care if they and their kids are hungry or this would have ended a long time ago, and the cutoffs wouldn’t have happened.
So what they decide to do is go to the lobbyists for the supermarket chains, and so you have Safeway and Albertson’s lobbyists, and Kroger lobbyists going to the Nevada state legislature and talking to the legislature about how much money they stand to make and everybody stands to make in tax revenue and everything else if food stamps are brought into the state, so that's kind of this, it's the stroke of genius that really kind of gives a sense of how creative as well as bold these women were—and some of that is Ruby’s genius some of it is Mary Wesley's boldnessshe's the one who was the architect of, who organizes the eat-ins in the casinos, some of it is some of the ideas of Jack Anderson, their key legal strategist and ally.
But you know, they then decide they want a medical facility, and this really in some ways is Essie Henderson's brainchild. And they take that bus out to the hospital that's so far away, and they just start asking the women, the people working there, and the different programs, what is it they do…. Because they had money from federal programs, in particular one called Early Periodic Screening and Diagnostic Testing, which was a program that the feds funded as part of the War on Poverty. You could bring kids in and you're just testing them and screening, but if they show up with anything they're treated for free. So they really wanted this program in West Las Vegas, but more than that they also wanted the jobs that they saw that people had in Sunrise Hospital. They wanted to use… this is where they began to get the idea that they should be running these programs, you know, that poor women were the real experts on poverty and they could run them better and get them off welfare to do so. So you know [Essie] Henderson is taking notes, and she wants to know how often there are doctors there. It turns out there are no doctors there the days they come, and you know she begins to sketch out the plan that they think will make their application from West Las Vegas look as good or better than the one from Sunrise Hospital, and that's their first big victory when they win the early periodic screening and diagnostic testing program.
That's when they start to rehabilitate the old segregation-era Cove Hotel and they open the Operation Life clinic. They get a black doctor and nurse—Garnet Ice is the doctor, I don't remember the nurse’s name—and also a lot of volunteers from the public health service—the public health service had a program then where when you went through medical school if you worked in a public health service clinic for a while your loans would be forgiven—and so a lot of people came in and they had support, but it also got the women jobs so they've got jobs through you know, through the war on poverty idea that was pioneered in Head Start, right that you don't just have school for the for poor kids, you hire their mothers and make them teachers, so it's a similar kind of thing with the early periodic screening program and also with Women Infant Children, the WIC program, the nutrition program. Alversa Beals is also in the documentary and in my book is one of the lead plaintiffs in the national suit to free up money as these women are in suits to free up money for food stamps. Food stamps and WIC are national programs that were not really national until welfare moms in 17 states sued to get the funding, to force the states to accept those monies, so you know those are two very….
MC: We didn't have the Roberts Court saying that that violated state sovereignty to do that at the time I suppose….
AO: True that. It’s a different court. So yeah that so they really start to get all these programs and Ruby’s brilliant and you know by the late 70s they're bringing in you know medical programs and job training programs and energy assistance programs, solarization long before anybody was talking about solar, and crime prevention, a newspaper. It’s really quite a remarkable organization.
You know, under Jimmy Carter's CETA, the Comprehensive Education and Training Act, which also reached out to community organizations to say what kind of jobs they needed and awarded moneys for those jobs, Operation Life had like 100 employees, many of whom were people who were able to get off welfare, but also their kids, for jobs that required high school degrees. It was a real booming success by that time and I think that's the part of the story the documentary tells only partly, it’s harder to get footage for that kind of thing.
MC: I think that’s an important part of the story also, because, speaking only for myself there's a part of this story that's very familiar with Piven and Cloward’s writing about poor people's movements that's related to direct action and disruption and pressure as a way to force concessions from authorities, but that analysis doesn't take you into the point where people start to build institutions and start to try to develop and exert control within their own communities in comprehensive ways, and the real genius of Operation Life I think, if I can summarize your work accurately, and the vision of its organizers, would be that again, that that these poor women know best what they need and given the opportunity and given access to resources that they know best how to actually achieve those things and how to secure them and how to preserve them.
So I think that's a vital part of the story that you tell and you know, as we get into the more recent past, a way of thinking about that as history as well rather than all the stuff that's on the archival footage, that we can we can tie to a moment of civil rights, or a moment of the protest era in the 60s and 70s and bracket that off, we can start thinking about continuities and bringing things closer to the present which I don't know if you have more to say about that, and I want to respect your time because you've been very generous in talking to us, and I’ve enjoyed this conversation probably enough that's gone on for quite a long time, so I wanted to check in with you and see if you had other things on your agenda today.
I wanted to make sure we ended the conversation that I could ask you a question about the experience of getting back into this work, which this book was published if I’m not mistaken first in 2005, so that's you know in the heart of the Bush administration, it's essentially after you a decade and a half of Reagan and Bush I, Clintonism, whether you call it compassionate conservatism or neoliberalism, that not only is the spigot of federal money drying up for a lot of these programs, but there's an increased sense that the solution to these problems of poverty is individual and not collective. It's about education, it's about breaking down these institutions that have, however minimally in America constituted a safety net, that that if those things are broken apart and the market is set free to do its magic, that there's going to be a period of transition but everybody's going to end up being better off.
Coming back into this work in 2023 you write very acutely that the intervening years have really changed the “vibe” I guess as the younger folks would say these days, that we've had Black Lives Matter protests, we've had financial crises that have led to the Great Recession, we've had the discrediting of this idea, and as observed in protest movements, we've had an upsurge in the protest of the Supreme Court decision and then state legislative decisions about reproductive freedom, which is an aspect of this book that we've hardly talked about but it's there it's crucial to the women here. And even, I just read last week that, on the New York Times op-ed page you have Harvard sociologist Matt Desmond saying you know, not only do we have a poverty problem, but it's specifically traced to the privileges that the rich are able to stake off for themselves through the political power that they enact in the United States, and that's something you never would have read in the New York Times or possibly heard coming from a Harvard sociologist in 2005.
So all that is kind of a long way of saying that a lot of change has happened between the first and second editions of this book and you sound a note of optimism about what this moment means but you're also cautionary and the thing you're stressing is that there are a lot of lessons from the women of Las Vegas that organizers and activists today need to know, so I wanted to not necessarily conclude our talk but I want to make sure that we had a chance to talk about that aspect of this work and where we are today and what this history tells us about how people can secure better, more stable less precarious lives for themselves.
AO: There’s a lot, and I think that to some extent the robust living wage movements that have spread around the world and the rebirth from the dead, courtesy of Gen. Z, of the labor movement, is in some ways is capturing some of the energy of the welfare rights movement and if you look at the folks who've spoken as spokespeople for Fight for 15 over the last decade, many of them are the same people who would have been involved in the welfare rights movement. Single moms of color are a huge proportion of the low-wage labor force, and so I think that they are once again proposing solutions that have started to change our society and that and have resulted in a lot of changes since 2005.
And I think that that's really important. You know, in terms of lessons you know for sure this idea that poor mothers are the real experts on poverty and that we need to be listening to them to come at solutions. I think that maybe that there does need to be robust federal action. I mean, I think one of the failures… part of this story is also some of the failures of the first welfare system under Aid to Dependent Children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which is allowing the states almost limitless leeway to run the programs the way they wanted. I think, you have to have more federal oversight but obviously you know that's a tough thing. Under Trump we talked about how we have to revive federalism because there's lots of great stuff happening on the ground and now it's like oh my God, you know, look at what the states are doing.
MC: Be careful what you wish for.
AO: Now it’s a federal protection for abortion rights. You know I think it constantly shifts and I think that's another lesson is we have to be aware of those shifts, but again if we are looking at humanizing poor families, poor moms and kids, poor parents and kids, low wage workers, that all of that is a really crucial dimension to what we're doing and I think the current House majority, the GOP majority, is calling for zero…. You know, not only have the expansions of food aid that cut child poverty in half during the COVID pandemic, have they now expired right, and people are at what they call a “hunger cliff,” which is a terrifying idea, but now they’re talking about deep cuts to SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, today's food stamps which feeds, at last count somewhere between 1 in four children and between one and six and seven adults. It's staggering and so I saw a response by Chuck Schumer who said let's be clear about what we're talking about here we're literally talking about taking food out of children’s mouths. I thought, I read that and thought “oh my god, we’re having the same conversation that we did when this movement began,” and so I feel like OK let's go back there, right let's go back there, let’s go back there and see what the logical extreme of this kind of movement is, this movement against food aid and poverty aid. Which is rickets—you know in the bones of these children in Las Vegas you know soft bones, open sores, you know the only reason in the ups and downs, the economic ups and downs of let’s say even just the last 18 years since the book came out, that we haven't had more sustained malnutrition and terrible hunger is because of the food stamp program and extensive food aid.
I always teach my students, much to their shock that the person expanded the program most after LBJ was W—Bush at the end of his administration because of the 2008 crash. So anyway I think the timing is really important. I think the lesson that poor people are the real experts on poverty and it's a lesson of the War on Poverty, the Community Action Program, it's also a lesson of this movement, we have to hold on to that and that’s the only way to keep our humanity.
You know, when they were screening such a high percentage of eligible children, the highest of any federally-funded pediatric clinic in the early 70s, and Casper Weinberger called them—he was HEW [Health, Education and Welfare, today Health and Human Services] secretary then—and he said, how do you do it, and they said they’re like our children, we think of them as our children that's the bottom line.
MC: Wow—that sums it up quite nicely so I want to thank you for the time you’ve taken to talk about this work and it's connection to this documentary, which needless to say I think is essential viewing for anyone, and you're featured very prominently in it, and your book has quite a bit more to say about a lot of these issues, so I’m going offer you the opportunity for a final word or final thought but I had one question for you and that is, I think this is Ruby Duncan next to Ralph Abernathy in the cover photo, right?
MC: OK so it struck me also that maybe it's emblematic of this, is that I think the publisher was taken the caption of the photo from the Life picture collection, but Abernathy is named and Ruby Duncan is not.
MC: Which is you know maybe says something about where we are in this in this issue and about trying to get a handle on poverty and who we empower, and certainly not to take anything away from Reverend Abernathy's leadership but he's not the only “leader” on the cover of that book, put it that way.
AO: And the only reason we have that photo is because Time Magazine was following Jane Fonda around on all her activist pursuits for a special—Life magazine sorry it's a Life magazine photo—for special feature on Jane Fonda's activism, so Ruby Duncan and Mary Wesley are both in that picture but you know it's… You know which was their point right if we get celebrities in here it's going to bring more attention to the movement and perhaps still does, but it is a commentary. I mean, Johnny Tillman when she named her first welfare rights group in Nickerson Gardens in L.A. in ‘63 said, she called them Aid to Needy Mothers Anonymous [MC: right] because she said that's what we are, that's what we are we're just we're nameless poor mothers so you know that's what I hope the book and the movie and coming back to this story helped to do is to give them names and back stories so that we can't do that, right we have to humanize this the struggle and they do it so beautifully. I love having them on screen and I'm happy that Hazel was able to bring this to screen.
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