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The Black Mothers Who Stormed Caesars Palace Are the Shoulders We Stand On

A Q&A with Annelise Orleck

Author photo: Joel Benjamin. Cover design: Louis Roe
Author photo: Joel Benjamin. Cover design: Louis Roe

We’ve been waiting for the premiere of the documentary since we first shared the news, and now it’s finally here! Storming Caesars Palace tells the little-known story of Ruby Duncan and the pioneering group of Black mothers in Las Vegas who built this country’s most successful antipoverty programs. Based on Annelise Orleck’s book of the same name, now available in a new and revised edition, the documentary aired on PBS in March 2023. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Orleck to chat about the new edition and the production.

Christian Coleman: What does it feel like coming back to Storming Caesars Palace eighteen years after its original publication? What sparked the need to revisit it?

Annelise Orleck: It felt right, and urgent, to return to the story of Storming Caesars Palace in these times, precisely because this political moment feels both so different and so similar to the time when the book was first published in 2005. Back then, our country was still living in the shadow of 9/11 and the militarist backlash that followed. It was the summer of Hurricane Katrina and, while people were still sweltering in the Superdome and awaiting permanent shelter, President George W. Bush announced plans to zero out funding for Community Action Agencies and Community Development Block grants. It was a time when “the neoliberal consensus” was still largely unchallenged by either major political party. And it was a moment when mass movements and sustained street protest seemed more like ancient history than they do now. When the women of Operation Life were stopped on the streets by young people who asked “When are you going to come back and do something about all this? We need you!” the women would answer “It’s your turn now.”

As the second edition comes out, young people have taken up that challenge. Donald Trump’s presidency galvanized new generations to protest. In much more constructive ways, so did Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaigns. The racial justice uprisings of Summer 2020—in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—drew more young people from every background into the streets than the country had seen since the 1960s and 70s when much of the action in Storming Caesars Palace takes place. When the book came out last week, it landed in a country that has seen a decade or more of new mass organizing: Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo. The campaign for a living wage, which has had great success in the past few years, was being waged by the same kinds of people who led the welfare rights movement—low-income mothers of color. A new generation of activists in Las Vegas and elsewhere, my students and so many other Gen Z activists, asked to learn “whose shoulders we stand on.” As young homelessness and living-wage activist Minister Stretch Sanders worked to acquaint young Black Las Vegans with the story told in Storming Caesars Palace, it seemed just the right time to reissue an expanded version of this book.

It also felt right to reissue this book to retell this remarkable story of poor mothers building one of the most successful and long-lasting community based anti-poverty programs of the War on Poverty era, because today’s GOP is once again waging all-out war on the poor. I am answering this question the day after the 2023 House GOP majority voted for a budget that would dramatically slash aid to senior citizens, poor families, and veterans and that calls for strict work requirements for those seeking food aid. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer noted that this will literally take food out of the mouths of hungry children. Ruby Duncan and the women of Clark County Welfare Rights Organization said almost those exact words to the Nevada Legislature after it cut thousands of poor Nevadans off aid in 1971. This is both a different time and painfully reminiscent of the years this book describes.

CC: Who got in touch with you about adapting your book? How did you find out the adaptation was happening?

AL: I was first approached by filmmaker Hazel Gurland-Pooler in 2007 after she heard a radio interview with me about Storming Caesars Palace and the Black mother-activists whose life stories it traced. Hazel has worked on this project on and off for more than fifteen years, putting in her own money and getting funding where she could. So, it is wonderful that we’re finally at the point that this documentary can reach the public via PBS and local screenings and hopefully colleges and public libraries.

CC: What was your reaction when you found out your book would be the basis of the documentary?

AL: I loved the idea. In fact, during the early years of research for the book, we filmed a lot of the oral history interviews and hoped someday to make them into a documentary. The story always seemed perfect for adaptation to the screen. But the truth is that I did not know how to make a documentary. So, I’m very glad that Hazel Gurland did.

Of course, there are key differences between a book and a film. The documentary tends to focus more on the early years of organizing and street protest. The 1971 marches on the Strip. The famous eat-in at the Stardust Hotel in 1972. Hazel did a great job of finding vivid, moving historical footage from those years. The book focuses on all of that too, of course, but as much or more on the twenty years following 1972, when the women of Operation Life opened and ran their one-stop social service delivery center on the West Side of Las Vegas, on how their organization evolved, on lobbying in the state and federal capitals. Those stories do not translate quite as well to the screen, so they are less the focus of the film but are vividly represented in the book.

CC: How much involvement did you have in the production? How much did you work with the director?

AL: I introduced Hazel to the women of Operation Life, helped her find some images, and sat for an eight-hour interview on a cold November day in Vermont during the worst of the pandemic with all my doors and windows open and the wood stove cranked up to keep us warm.

CC: The documentary’s website says the book was revised and updated to accompany its PBS broadcast. Could you tell us about a few of the revisions and updates?

AL: The book was revised and updated to reflect the years since publication and how knowledge of the story of Ruby Duncan and the women of Operation Life has rippled out to affect change in Las Vegas and elsewhere. It was not updated or revised in relation to the documentary, but certainly the two work really well together, and I’m hopeful that with the documentary out now the book will have a whole new life in the classroom.

CC: What does Storming Caesars Palace mean to you now that there’s a documentary to tell the story of Ruby Duncan and other revolutionary Black women welfare organizers of Las Vegas?

AL: I’m hoping that a nationally broadcast PBS documentary will bring more people to the new edition of the book and provide important context for renewed discussion of the importance of having a federal social safety net. Also, I believe that Operation Life provides a scalable model for the most effective way to fight poverty—employing poor mothers and fathers to provide services to their own communities: health care, libraries, housing, job training, solarization programs, crime fighting programs. “We can do it and do it better,” the women argued back in the 1970s when they were first applying for federal funding for Operation Life. They did then. And I think that they can now. That’s the message of this new edition of Storming Caesars Palace.


About Annelise Orleck 

Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of US women, politics, immigration, and activism, including “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now” and Storming Caesars Palace.