At the time of his death in April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had turned his focus to poverty in America. Groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization had helped heighten King’s awareness of these issues. 

Led by chemistry professor-turned-activist George Wiley (father of  2021 New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley), the National Welfare Rights Organization was a coalition of welfare activists from across the country, the majority of them Black women.

The documentary “Storming Caesars Palace” grippingly details the host of indignities visited upon welfare recipients that prompted the rise of these organizations and the outsized (and sadly unheralded) impact they came to have in promoting the rights of poor women.

Directed by Hazel Gurland Pooler and based on the book “Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty,” by Dartmouth professor Annelise Orleck, the film puts much of its focus on Ruby Duncan. An African American divorced mother of six, Duncan moved to Las Vegas from rural Louisiana in 1952, searching for work. She found herself unemployed in 1966 after being injured in a fall at her job as a cook at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas strip.

Duncan and her children appear in the doc, recounting how hard life was after she had to stop working and go on welfare. All seven family members once shared one hamburger, and Duncan used petroleum jelly to fry food. They lived, along with most Black people in Las Vegas at that time, on the Westside, aka “The Mississippi of Las Vegas.”

Orleck herself appears in the doc and explains how the increased presence of Black women on the welfare rolls in the 1950s brought a harsh backlash. Welfare had been around since the 1930s, but was originally envisioned as the province of white women. States devised numerous ways to restrict or limit the benefits for Black women.

In addition to inadequate benefits, Duncan and other Black mothers on welfare endured multiple indignities. Their homes were routinely raided in the middle of the night by caseworkers (often armed) looking for evidence of jobs, unreported income, or men. Women were taken off welfare if there was any indication that there was a man in the home.

Duncan was elected president of the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization in 1968. Despite her initial hesitance to wear that mantle, Duncan, with nothing but a ninth grade education, grew to distinguish herself as an astute strategist and organizer.

Guided by the principle that women on welfare were the best arbiters of how to govern themselves, Duncan, along with other activists who appear in “Storming Caesars Palace” like Mary Wesley and Alversa Beals, halted the de facto war on the poor being waged on communities like the Westside in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The film includes shocking audio of President Nixon decrying “little Negro bastards” on welfare.

The film’s title refers to one of the watershed moments in the history of the welfare rights movement: Thousands of welfare activists stormed the famous casino in 1971 to protest the state’s 30% reduction in Nevada’s welfare rolls as part of a pilot program the federal government hoped to roll out nationally.

Archival photos and videos in “Storming Caesars Palace” show the women were supported by the likes of Jane Fonda, Sammy Davis Jr., and Donald Sutherland. The move shut down the vaunted casino for hours. A week later, welfare activists attempted to do the same at another popular casino and hotel on the Strip, the Sands. However, owners of the hotel locked the doors before activists arrived.

The activists weren’t thwarted. Stunning archival footage shows they instead sat in the streets, cutting off access to venues on the Strip. Within weeks, Duncan and her cohorts saw the fruits of their labor when those taken off the welfare rolls were restored to their benefits.

Duncan went on to fight for Nevada to add food stamp benefits, cleverly overcoming the resistance of lawmakers by motivating local supermarkets to join the welfare mothers in the fight.

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Duncan and the other welfare mothers also staged an “eat-in,” bringing their children to the Stardust restaurant and encouraging them to order whatever they wanted. When it came time to pay the astronomical bill, the mothers refused, giving themselves up for arrest. They achieved victory here as well: Nevada implemented a food stamp program in 1972, the last state to do so.

Still guided by the principle that welfare mothers were best suited to determining their own lives, Duncan launched Operation Life in 1972 out of the deserted Cove Hotel. The organization saw Duncan and the other welfare mothers skillfully and successfully launch a number of significant initiatives. The documentary shows footage of the first library and health center in the Las Vegas Westside neighborhood. Eventually, a jobs program, day care center, the first swimming pool in the Westside, and a drug program were also created.

Operation Life also came under attack by the state. In the film, Duncan, Beals, and Wesley recall that the program was accused of welfare fraud in an attempt to shut it down. However, after a lengthy investigation, the state found no evidence of wrongdoing. Operation Life carried on until 1992, when it was finally folded after Duncan’s 1990 retirement and a lack of funding.

Photos in “Storming Caesar’s Palace” document Duncan’s rise from her humble beginnings to national prominence. Interviews with her children, fellow welfare activists, and public figures such as Gloria Steinem illuminate that she did so through deep intelligence, strong will, and a passionate dedication to justice.

“Storming Caesars Palace” is streaming on and the PBS app. For more information, visit the page on INDEPENDENT LENS.

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