The Welfare Rights Movement Wanted Society to Value the Work of Child-Rearing

Annelise Orleck

The welfare rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s resisted invasive policies like caseworker “midnight raids” and cuts to already-miserly public assistance. Their animating vision: that society treat every mother and child with dignity.

Members of the National Welfare Rights Organization march along Summer Street in Boston, Massachusetts, October 14, 1969. (Phil Preston / the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Interview by
Sasha Lilley

In 1971, thousands of poor black women shut down the Las Vegas Strip and occupied Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino in protest of welfare cuts in Nevada. They were joined by left celebrities like Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, partly to ensure that the mobsters who owned the casinos would not shoot into the crowds of protesters. These women subsequently founded Operation Life, considered one of the most successful programs of the War on Poverty era.

Historian Annelise Orleck’s book, Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought their Own War on Poverty, documents this struggle for welfare rights. It has been published in a revised edition and is the basis of a new PBS documentary of the same name. She was recently interviewed by Sasha Lilley for Against the Grain, a California-based progressive radio show, about the punitive policies like “midnight raids” that spurred welfare recipients’ organizing, the connections between the local and national welfare rights movement, and, as one welfare rights recipient and organizer put it, “the idea that I was entitled to certain benefits for the work I did, raising my children.”

Sasha Lilley

What was Nevada was like in the 1950s and ’60s?

Annelise Orleck

Nevada itself was a wide-open libertarian place. It was the center of defense production, which began during World War II, and drew a lot of folks from the South to work there. It was a Jim Crow town.

The famous era of Strip development started in 1947 with Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel, and a lot of the famous hotels went up during the 1950s. Those were the hotels that drew the city’s early black population and the hotel unions. There was a black woman business agent by the name of Sarah Hughes representing the Culinary Workers Union, who literally went to the cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta to try to recruit people to work in the hotel industry — the men as porters and car valets, and the women as housekeepers and kitchen help.

The women who would make up the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization came from pretty much three Delta towns: Tallulah, Louisiana; Fordyce, Arkansas; and Greenville, Mississippi (and some from some Vicksburg, Mississippi). So every one of the women that Storming Caesars Palace focuses on had been sharecroppers — literally, the last cotton pickers. Their decision to move to Las Vegas was rooted in their determination that whatever else their future held, their children would not pick cotton. Las Vegas offered alternative kinds of labor and means of living.

Sasha Lilley

Tell us a bit more about the employment there. Now, Las Vegas is known as a union town, but back then, what were the working conditions for people in the casinos and in the hotels, especially since you could find yourself on public assistance while also working for these employers since much of it was seasonal?

Annelise Orleck

The people this story is about — Ruby Duncan, Rosie Seals, Alversa Beals, Emma Stampley, Essie Henderson — were excited at the experience of their early employment in Las Vegas. Beals said that the union’s business agent had not been lying when she said you could make in a day what you made in a week in the cotton fields. When she got her first check after two weeks of cleaning rooms in the Flamingo Hotel, she was amazed. She remembers asking her sister, is this check real? Did I really make that much money? And as Alversa said, you could work in the shade. You didn’t have to be out in the hot sun.

The industry was also already unionized. Early deals had been made with the mob hotel owners — the idea being that if we give our workers pretty good wages, decent conditions, and they agree not to strike, then the hotels and the casinos will run smoothly and the flow of dollars into the coffers of the owners and also into state tax coffers (because Nevada was the only state in the union with legalized gambling) would not stop. So for the women, the wages they earned and the fact that they had a union representing them was really important.

Fremont Street, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1952. (Edward N. Edstrom / Wikimedia Commons)

Duncan tells a story about having worked her shift, and at the end of the day, her supervisor said, there’s a convention coming in and you have to work tonight as well. She said, I have seven children at home, I can’t do that. And she was fired. She went to her union business rep, Hughes, who came back and said, hey, that’s not in our contract. The contract says that you can’t suddenly spring night work on people. And Duncan remembered going in and talking to the supervisor, who was a white woman from Florida, and she said, you may not know it, but slavery is over.

So there was a lot that Las Vegas offered in the beginning. There was a lot that it didn’t offer as well: on the west side of Las Vegas, most housing was considered substandard, there was raw sewage in the streets, and there were people living in housing that Mary Wesley and other activists I write about who came from Mississippi thought were chicken coops.

Las Vegas was also a segregated town until 1965. As the years went on, black residents started to get a little bit better infrastructure and conditions, but they couldn’t go to the Strip. They could work in the back of the hotels and in the cleaning rooms, but they couldn’t go for an evening’s entertainment.

Sasha Lilley

What was the welfare system like in Nevada in the 1960s?

Annelise Orleck

It had some of the lowest benefits in the country, second only to Mississippi and maybe Alabama. Part of that was the libertarian culture of the state — you know, you don’t take handouts from anybody. But after a while, as the casino and hotel business began to develop, the state officials and hotel owners both realized that the Las Vegas tourist industry in its early years was very much seasonal. They didn’t want to pay workers when there were not enough people coming to stay in the hotels or play on the slot machines and the craps tables, but they didn’t want the workers to leave town either because they wanted them to be able to be called up at a moment’s notice.

They began to realize that if people could apply for public assistance, then they might have just enough to feed their children and keep roofs over their heads, no matter how inadequate those roofs were. And so the welfare system developed as something that served the hotel and casino industry and the state at least as much, if not more, as it served the poor people who received welfare.

Sasha Lilley

Can you remind us, since this is a big part of this story, about the history of what has come to be known as welfare — that is, Aid to Families with Dependent Children?

Annelise Orleck

The program has its origins in the 1935 Social Security Act, which said that there’s some floor below which we won’t let the poorest mothers and kids fall, as an entitlement of citizenship. In its initial years, it had a positive gloss: we’re going to give this money to women whose husbands were killed in World War I or disappeared looking for work and never came back during the Depression. But increasingly, it came to be seen — and this was especially true during and after the civil rights movement — as something that disproportionately benefited black women and Latino women.

To get the law passed, and to get it reauthorized from time to time, the Roosevelt administration was willing to allow each state to make its own rules. So you got fifty different welfare systems, and states had laws like “employable mother” clauses, which said that you could kick everybody off, for example, during the agricultural season when employers wanted pickers in the fields. And that didn’t only happen in the South — it happened in New Jersey, it happened in the West.

So this is the system that the women entered when they began as hotel workers. Many of them became injured because the work was brutal on their bodies, and also because some had more children than they wanted to, sometimes because they couldn’t access birth control.

Sasha Lilley

You mentioned this shift that was happening to associate recipients, particularly black women recipients, with drawing welfare unfairly and defrauding the system. Can you tell us about the efforts of George Miller, Nevada’s director of welfare, to investigate and basically terrorize women to see if they could be thrown off welfare?

Annelise Orleck

Miller had attended a conference that had been convened by then California governor Ronald Reagan. He was interested in using Nevada to experiment with major cuts, and had been very actively engaging in what came to be known as midnight raids.

Midnight raids were a practice whereby the state and county welfare departments would send caseworkers into recipients’ houses in the middle of the night. It was this terrifying knock on the door, and they’d come into the house when everyone was sleeping, wake everybody up, and start looking for evidence that a man might be present in the house — or even if the man wasn’t there, look for razors, look for cigars, look for men’s clothes.

There were rules in many of these state welfare programs that said a substitute father, if found, could be deemed responsible for the financial support of the children, so even if this was not the actual father of the children, or even a long-term boyfriend, or even if this person might be a male relative visiting, any sign of a man was sufficient to throw the family off public assistance.

Midnight raids had actually been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1968 in King v. Smith, but Miller was still doing some of this in Las Vegas. I interviewed a bunch of caseworkers many years later, and they said that Miller insisted that caseworkers carry loaded guns when they went on these midnight raids. Most of these caseworkers said that they left the gun at home, but it perpetuated the idea that these women were somehow dangerous.

Sasha Lilley

How did these women end up organizing themselves? And what was the larger political context out of which they started organizing?

Annelise Orleck

The direct catalyst was Miller’s decision to cut one-third of the state’s recipients off the rolls; drastically slash the benefits of another third; and slightly, by pennies, raise the benefits of the remaining third in January 1971. He said that through midnight raids and audits and other kinds of investigations — calling women into the welfare office to grill them about their personal lives, whether they had jobs under the table, whether they had boyfriends — all of that had revealed that there was one-third of the recipients in the state who were “the deserving poor.” The others were either getting too much or defrauding the state entirely.

The larger political context was that across the country, there were women on public assistance who had begun to analyze the ways the system was set up to guarantee a cheap labor force. The system was like — in the words of the national leader of the welfare rights movement, Johnnie Tillmon, who was herself a recipient — a super-sexist marriage: the man controlled everything, and you couldn’t argue or your children would end up hungry.

Johnnie Tillmon (left) and George Wiley. ( / Wikimedia Commons)

So women began to organize, starting in Los Angeles in 1963, when Tillmon organized the first welfare rights group, and people began to organize with Beulah Sanders in New York City. And in 1966 a former professor, George Wiley, and an academic couple, Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven, worked together with Tillman and Sanders to pull together a national organization of welfare recipients called the National Welfare Rights Organization.

The other bit of this context is that from 1964 to 1980, there was a great deal of federal funding for local and community organizing by poor people. One of these organizers came to Alversa Beals’s door and told her about the welfare rights movement. And Beals said, “Wow, it was the first time I’d heard the words ‘welfare’ and ‘rights’ in the same sentence — the idea that I was entitled to certain benefits for the work I did, raising my children.”

So she and another migrant from the same town in Louisiana, Rosie Seals, started the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization in 1967 as part of this national movement. Seals was sick, so in 1968 the leadership of that group was handed over to Duncan, who had been a hotel worker. She was a union activist, and she had been severely injured in a kitchen accident.

As Seals put it, being poor is depressing, and so they found mothers who were just paralyzed by depression at the state they were living in — not having a decent pair of shoes to send their kids to school with and having hungry children who had headaches and couldn’t learn. Seals said that she’d go into a house and find babies in dirty diapers, hungry kids, and tattered clothes, and they would start by doing clothing drives and literally washing and cleaning up the kids, getting the mothers out of their torpor and trying to help their kids get medical care. So it began as a kind of women’s neighborhood organizing network, to help others in the community and to help those poorer than themselves.

But in the political context of that time, with all the War on Poverty programs and with the national welfare rights movement and the turbulence among young people in the 1960s that generated a large body of young law students and medical students who wanted to participate in anti-poverty work, the women began to learn how to navigate the political system and to lobby for their own children. A key group in helping them was the League of Women Voters and Maya Miller, the welfare, human rights, and race relations director for the group. She and other league activists began to work together with the welfare moms as mothers. They shared this vision that the work that mothers did in raising children — clothing them, teaching them, feeding them, and counseling them — all had economic value in our larger system, and should be respected and treated with value.

So they became lobbyists on behalf of their own children. And they did it really powerfully. They had already begun to lobby, for example, for shoes for their children. Duncan talks about encountering the very powerful chair of the state ways and means committee, and realizing when she went to the state capitol to lobby that, as she said to him, “If it wasn’t for you, I could have shoes for my children.” This nameless, faceless welfare bureaucracy became personalized. And some of them, Duncan in particular, became quite brilliant at navigating it and lobbying on their own behalf.

Then when everybody was cut off in January 1971, the National Welfare Rights Organization was approached by Duncan and others and they said, yeah, let’s make a national issue out of this. They launched something called Operation Nevada, which brought all these law students and welfare moms from all over the country. There was a contingent of priests and rabbis and other ministers who helped them do direct action.

And that’s when they stormed Caesars Palace in March 1971, in a series of marches that for the first time ever shut down gambling on the Las Vegas Strip for several weeks running.

[Civil rights leader] Ralph Abernathy was with them, and he was arm in arm with Duncan, and also with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, as well as the other women in the movement, Mary Wesley and others, when they marched into Caesars Palace.

Abernathy helped to generate national press when he stopped in front of Caesars Palace, and he preached before this white plaster statue of Caesar on a giant white horse in front of the fake Roman coliseum there. And he said, “Caesar, render unto the poor what is rightfully theirs.”

Sasha Lilley

How did the big employers of the state see all of this? You’ve been describing a situation in which the casinos of Las Vegas benefited as much or more from public assistance as the workers did themselves, because it allowed these people to stay in the area to do the seasonal work for the hotels and casinos. So when Miller throws people off welfare, is there any discord among the business class in Las Vegas?

Annelise Orleck

By the 1970s, the industry was a little less seasonal than it had been in the 1950s and ’60s. But there was a split. It’s interesting: the owner of Caesars had come up behind Duncan and whispered in her ear, don’t worry. No one will get hurt. You can come in, I’ve talked to my staff.

I also heard a fairly sensational story later, that there had been a meeting of hotel owners, including the mob and some mobbed-up unions, to decide whether or not to kill Duncan. Because in the aftermath of the Strip marches where they shut down the casinos, there were a lot of civil disobedience actions that followed, including an eat-in. At one of those all-you-can eat buffets, at the Stardust Hotel, they brought in hundreds of hungry children and told them to eat whatever they wanted, and then they weren’t going to pay. This was when they were trying to get the state to accept food stamps in 1972.

So there’d been a meeting of the owners who were sick of this, and some of them wanted Duncan killed. And ultimately, one of the more powerful figures in the hotel industry and in the mob at that time apparently stood up and said, “No more, no more talk of this. This is someone who’s just fighting for mothers and kids, and this is not what we do.”

The women switched from the direct-action protests to working within the system in the ’70s. They began to apply for all kinds of federal money that funded community organizations to work in their community. They were able to open their neighborhood’s first medical clinic, first library, and first daycare center, as well as job training programs and a Women and Infant Children Nutrition Program, all of which profoundly benefited their community and served thousands and thousands of poor children and their families.

The women were quite brilliant at running these programs. Duncan said that her political vision could be summed up as, “What any mother wants for her children, we believe a humane society should give to all children.” And they tried to do that.