The march for welfare rights, 1971. | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

The Mothers Who Marched

How an organization of black mothers from the South provoked welfare reform by shutting down the Strip

On a Saturday 45 years ago,  37-year-old Emma Daugherty, a mother of eight, took part in one of the largest protests in Las Vegas history.

She was a member of the welfare reform organization known as Operation Life. On March 6, 1971, marching 1,500 strong, arm-in-arm with celebrity activists including actress Jane Fonda and labor rights leader Cesar Chavez, this group of poor women from the South walked to the heart of the Strip, Caesars Palace gleaming on one side and the blushing marquees of the Flamingo on the other.

After years of fighting a broken welfare system, staging sit-ins, getting arrested and begging state legislators for reform, the women of Operation Life were not going to be quiet.

“It makes me appreciate the hidden history of Las Vegas so much more,” says Carmella Gadsen, Daugherty’s great-granddaughter. “I always said that Las Vegas is a place without culture and without history, but I just hadn’t really been exposed to it.”

It’s a powerful history. And, as the women of Operation Life pass on, it’s a history that, until recently, was in danger of dying with them.

From the cotton fields  to the desert

“We were sharecroppers [in Louisiana],” says Ruby Duncan, one of the leaders of the march and a founder of Operation Life. “It was a bit better [in Las Vegas], because in the South, when I was a young person picking cotton … we didn’t have roads. But it wasn’t much different.”

Protesters at the Sands, 1971. | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Protesters at the Sands, 1971. | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Segregation on the Strip during the 1940s and ’50s, Jim Crow laws and the practice of redlining funneled most of the city’s black community and businesses into the Westside, an area near Downtown so called because it was on the west side of the Union Pacific railroad tracks. The neighborhood offered little succor to those migrating from the South, and Las Vegas became known as the Mississippi of the West.

“We didn’t have any running water. It was really bad,” says Duncan, who moved to Southern Nevada from her native Tallulah, Louisiana, in 1952. She found kitchen work in casinos on the Strip until an accident left her with a permanent disability. By the 1960s, she had married and had seven children.

Many more of the women who would later form Operation Life were making their way to Las Vegas. Among them were Daugherty, Mary Wesley, Alversa Beals and Rosie Seals. While many of them were born and raised near each other, it was their shared struggles in the Westside that would cause them to meet and, eventually, unite.

Like Duncan, Seals worked in the cotton fields as well as wood mills before moving to Las Vegas in 1951. When she was 37, the widowed Seals had a stroke. Her doctor wrote a note saying she could die if she went back to work, and instructed Seals, a mother of seven, to take it to the welfare office. But when Seals visited the welfare clerk, her application was promptly denied.

Seals’ experience was neither rare nor the worst of its kind. In 1961, the national welfare system did not force states to participate. Nevada refused to sign on for years. States had full discretion over how funds were disbursed, including rules on who qualified and how recipients were compensated.

Because of the states’ power, single black mothers and single white mothers could end up getting paid different amounts. While working at a laundry service, Seals learned that her white coworker got a higher welfare benefit, despite having fewer kids.

Across the country, welfare office administrators saw single black mothers as part of a growing cultural problem. Annelise Orleck writes in Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Beacon Press, 2006):

“By the mid-1960s, when Duncan, Beals, Wesley and Seals walked into the Las Vegas welfare office to apply for aid, it had become difficult for most caseworkers to see poor black mothers as individuals. They had merged, instead, into a nameless, featureless social problem: the unmarried black mother. The nation’s newest bogeywoman was stigmatized no matter what she said or did: She was a bad mother if she worked outside the home and neglected her children, a parasite if she applied for aid so that she could stay at home.”

After the curt dismissal, Seals began talking to welfare rights activists and bringing their call to arms back into the living rooms and churches of the Westside.

At the time, it was legal to work while receiving benefits, and Nevada had the highest rate of working welfare mothers in the country (47 percent), according to Orleck. But dollars earned on the job counted against welfare benefits. In Nevada, the welfare benefit was only $25 per child per month.

This wasn’t the worst problem facing welfare mothers. Nevada law allowed welfare offices to routinely conduct substitute-father raids, in which they could forcibly enter the homes of recipients, unannounced, to search for any clue that a man had been there. If any evidence, such as whiskers in the sink, was discovered, the women could be labeled a welfare cheat and kicked out of the system.

Women also faced the threat of losing their children. In 1967, Congress gave the Welfare Department the right to take a single mother’s children because of multiple instances of illegitimacy. Illegitimacy could mean anything from too many children fathered outside of marriage, too many children fathered by too many different men or simply, children being raised in a home without a father.

Compounding the problem, family-planning options for poor black women at the time were limited. Until 1973 unmarried women, regardless of race, couldn’t access birth control. Many of the women on the Westside begged their doctors for birth control. Gadsen’s great-grandmother Emma Daugherty was one of them.

“I would have preferred to have fewer children,” Daugherty, who declined an interview with Vegas Seven due to health issues, says in Storming Caesars Palace. “But there wasn’t any birth control available on the market for black peoples like they had for whites. There was no place to go.”

Daugherty’s plight echoes in Gadsen’s work. The recent UNLV graduate is the coordinator of the Green Dot Violence Prevention Program at the school’s Jean Nidetch Women’s Center.

“There were so many other women [besides my great-grandmother] who had a lot of children, not because they wanted to,” Gadsen says. “Someone like me now, who is participating in reproductive justice and caring about those things … and knowing it’s been going on so long, [to see] that my great-grandmother was really a victim of not being able to have her own choices and options, that really touched home for me.”

March 13, 1971. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

March 13, 1971. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

The growing  storm

Rosie Seals soon found her living room meetings getting bigger, and her phone ringing off the hook. She was visiting homes of people in abject poverty, some in shacks barely more than tents made of rags. The poorest would send their children door-to-door begging for bread.

With the help of Alversa Beals, Seals mobilized the Westside mothers into the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization (CCWRO). Affiliated with the coalescing National Welfare Rights Organization, CCWRO joined a movement that was spreading throughout the country. In 1966, welfare marches took place in 16 major cities. The following year, protests spread to 40 cities. By 1968, the movement captured the gaze of national leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who acknowledged the group as an important part of his Poor People’s Campaign.

But in 1970, things got worse. By this time, George Miller had taken over as director of the Nevada Welfare Department. Miller was already known for using substitute-father raids to investigate alleged welfare cheats, despite the Supreme Court ruling two years earlier that aid could not be withheld because of the presence of a “man in the house.” He launched a ruthless audit of Las Vegas and Reno welfare rolls. Without warning, recipients stopped getting checks or found them slashed without explanation.

Duncan, now a major player in CCWRO and a media-friendly face for the organization, was not going away without a fight. With the help of Clark County Legal Services Director B. Mahlon Brown, they filed Woods v. Miller, which argued that terminating the benefits of so many welfare mothers at the same time without hearings was a violation of their due process rights and federal law.

Although a judge’s order temporarily reinstated benefits, Miller refused to release his iron grip. Instead, he escalated his efforts, sending out a new wave of cuts on New Year’s Day 1971.

Duncan knew what they had to do: “We had to go to war with them.”

Taking it to  the streets

on february 8, 1971, ccwro leaders marched to the welfare office, weaving through the Westside with 300 members of the community. Duncan read a list of demands, including restoring benefits and reviewing the official caseworker rulebook.

They would return to the welfare office a week later, but officials would only meet one demand: A select few CCWRO leaders could read the manual at the office. As they walked outside in defeat, help appeared in a surprise supporter: Sammy Davis Jr.

Security guards block protesters from entering the Sands Hotel and Casino. Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Security guards block protesters from entering the Sands Hotel and Casino. Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

The entertainer experienced segregation firsthand in Las Vegas. Once, the Sands drained the pool after the headliner jumped in with his Rat Pack buddies. Duncan found him talking to a crowd of media outside the welfare office, rallying behind their cause. She seized her moment.

Duncan announced plans to shut down the lifeblood of Las Vegas. She delivered the news that CCWRO would march down the Strip every Saturday until things changed.

With Duncan taking lead, protesters linked arms and marched down Las Vegas Boulevard on March 6, 1971. In addition to Fonda and Chavez, they were joined by peace activists Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dave Dellinger, Donald Sutherland and Dr. Benjamin Spock. The 1,500-person procession spanned a quarter mile down the Strip, and was filled with welfare rights activists who had come from “every corner of the United States,” according to Duncan.

Their destination: Caesars Palace.

Organizers marched past the sparkling fountains into the heart of the casino, where gaming stopped for half an hour. Caesars’ then-president William Weinberger surreptitiously met Duncan in the lobby and told her that everyone was invited to stay as long as they liked. The mothers sat on the steps out front. Their children played in the fountains as security guards stood idle.

Across the street, the Flamingo locked its doors. “They were afraid of us!” Duncan says.

But for all the national headlines, they had little to show for it. The following week, the Westside mothers took to the boulevard again, this time targeting Howard Hughes’ Sands. While their numbers had dwindled to about 250 protesters, their spirits were not diminished. When CCWRO leaders found the Sands’ doors locked and barricaded by furniture, “we took to the streets,” Duncan says.

From sidewalk to sidewalk, protesters sat in the street in peaceful protest. Traffic backed up all the way to the California border, says Duncan, who was among the 86 arrested.

Security guards and guests watch protesters outside the Sands Hotel and Casino. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Security guards and guests watch protesters outside the Sands Hotel and Casino. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

In the following days, things escalated between the protesters and the police. The women were arrested multiple times on suspicion of assault and battery after welfare officials repeatedly refused to sign a form that would help an evicted woman from their community. In one incident, fistfights with the police broke out after Duncan and Seals carried a welfare official, who was hiding in his office, outside to the public.

“I was not aware it would explode the way it did,” Duncan says. “We were aggravating everybody.”

Then, 13 days after protesters first shut down the Las Vegas Strip, the Woods v. Miller ruling came in and changed everything. Miller’s massive cuts were found to be an unconstitutional violation of the rights of all welfare recipients. The judge reinstated everyone who had been cut and ordered retroactive payments.

It was a big win, but far from the mothers’ last fight.

The  aftermath

Following the Woods v. Miller ruling, the organizers staged eat-ins when state legislators passed new cuts to the welfare program and stiff new penalties for cheats, including prison time. They lobbied for Nevada to join the food stamps program.

“Nothing was ever too big. We just felt like everything should be done and our children should get better,” Duncan says.

A year after the marches on the Strip, CCWRO opened a community organization at the corner of Jackson Avenue and D Street, christening it Operation Life. In just a few years’ time, its headquarters would offer the Westside’s first library, first healthcare clinic and first economic development office. At its height, the organization was managing millions of dollars in federal aid money and grants, which were used to feed children, start businesses, provide job training and shelter the homeless in their community. The organization shifted focus after Reagan-era policies required administrators of federal funds to have a college degree.

Now 83 years old, Duncan is one of the few Westside mothers still alive and is as sharp as ever. She retired from Operation Life in 1990, and is the only one who has a public legacy, which includes the low-income housing project Ruby Duncan Manor (built by Operation Life in 1987) and Ruby Duncan Elementary School in North Las Vegas (opened in 2010).


Ruby Duncan, February 26, 2016. | Photo by Krystal Ramirez

When Seals died in April, her one-paragraph obituary in the Las Vegas Review-Journal simply said she was a homemaker. The other women are almost forgotten.

“I realized I had learned more about my [great-]grandmother from the book, Storming Caesars Palace, than I had really learned all my life growing up with her,” Gadsen says. “She never really mentioned Ruby Duncan or any of the other women, for that matter. For all I know they could be really great friends in the church, but it was just something she never really brought up. And I don’t know why that is.”

Gadsen hopes to record Daugherty’s account of Operation Life for an oral history at the Lied Library, so her great-grandmother’s stories will not be lost.

Duncan also has stories included in archives. “I tell my children, ‘You guys better ask me everything you want to know now,’ [while] my mind is still working,” she says.

But while Duncan wants the history of Operation Life preserved, she doesn’t want people to only look backward. And she’s ready with advice for the next generation of activists: “I think they should push their legislators. Go to them and say, ‘This is what we want or we will organize against you!’”

Coming from Duncan, that’s no idle threat.