By: Annelise Orleck | Mother Jones
On March 20, 2023, Storming Caesars Palace, a documentary directed by Hazel Gurland-Pooler, premiered on PBS. It was based on the 2005 book Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, by Dartmouth history professor Annelise Orleck, which was rereleased in an expanded edition this month. It chronicles the remarkable story of a group of poor mothers who in 1971 shut down the Las Vegas Strip in protest of welfare cuts and then founded Operation Life, one of the most successful programs of the War on Poverty era.
I didn’t know much about the women activists of Clark County Welfare Rights Organization when we first met in Las Vegas for casino Chinese food on a very hot Labor Day in 1992. A presidential race was taking place at the time, between incumbent George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who, among his many campaign promises, vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” In some real and still provocative ways, the women I met that day had actually fulfilled that promise in Las Vegas back in the ’70s and ’80s. These mothers and grandmothers, who were also hotel maids and kitchen staff, domestic workers, and cocktail waitresses, became incensed after a lifetime of mistreatment by violent men, field bosses, hotel supervisors, and now state and county welfare authorities. They fought back, first in a series of street demonstrations and direct-action protests, and then by creating a remarkable, comprehensive anti-poverty program in their city that remains a model today.
Host a screening of Storming Caesars Palace
At the time, my first book, Common Sense and a Little Fire, a collective biography of immigrant Jewish women labor activists in the first half of the 20th century, was nearly complete. I was looking for another movement of poor women to chronicle and visiting with Maya Miller, a friend and a northern Nevada progressive and philanthropist who had been deeply involved in welfare rights work in the 1960s and ’70s. She began to tell stories about a group of women she had worked with over the previous 30 years and suggested they might have a story I’d like to explore.
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