Local Gem

The National Association of Secretaries of State has chosen local hero Ruby Duncan for the National Margaret Chase Smith Award for Political Courage. Previous winners include Rosa Parks and Jimmy Carter. This year, finalists included Nobel prize-winner Al Gore.

Congratulations Ruby!

Ruby is one of my favorite community leaders. She’s living proof that you can organize, mobilize and change your community for the better. She not only made life better for her children, she and the other West Side Mothers worked to make Las Vegas better, Nevada better and America better.

Back in my CityLife days I wrote thisabout the West Side Mothers and the movement they created chronicled in Annelise Orleck’s book Storming Caesars Palace:

In the late 1960s a group of welfare mothers organized in living rooms and raised the community’s conscience, bringing tourism to a standstill on the Strip.

Down but never out.

It’s one way to sum up the lives of the poor, black single mothers who rose up from the slums of the Westside in the late 1960s to demand what they needed to help themselves and their community. They were Ruby Duncan, Alversa Beals, Rosie Lee Seals, Mary Wesley and others.

By themselves they were mothers alone, looking for a way to fill their growing children’s growling bellies. Together, they fed a community.

The still-boisterous Seals says the problem was simple, “The babies needed milk!”

Just like thousands of black Americans who left the blood and sweat of the cotton fields behind and migrated out of the deep South in the 1940s and 1950s in order to find a better life in the North and West, this simple group of young, uneducated women found Las Vegas — or as it was known then, the “Mississippi of the West” — filled with the tyranny of segregation and poverty. Sometimes it was a more brutal reality than what they left behind.

While Sammy Davis Jr. and Josephine Baker were breaking down color barriers in the glamorous world of the Strip, black mothers were getting smaller welfare checks than white mothers with the same number of children. There were late-night raids on the homes of single women on welfare — to make sure no “substitute fathers” were taking up residence, and therefore aiding and abetting a “cheat” on the system.

In the early 1960s, there were still homes on the Westside — the segregated part of Las Vegas set aside for the black population — fronted by dirt streets with no water or telephone services. Even for those who came from the harsh sharecropping conditions of the South, the Westside was an often inhospitable place.

“We were all on welfare and we were all poor, dirt poor,” remembers Duncan.

But like the song says: You can’t keep a good woman down.

The Westside mothers didn’t need college degrees or a government social worker threatening to take their kids away for them to know things had to change. Things were dire and change was necessary.

“The government told us the only way we were going to get food stamps was if a camel passed through the eye of a needle. They lied. … We got the food stamps to feed the babies,” says Seals, now 82. “It was just so hard. But somebody had to do it.”

Perhaps it was no coincidence that at the same time, the temperature on civil rights issues all around the country was rising. These were the years when the phrase “black power” was coined, the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage, riots were burning in big city ghettos and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X were murdered.

This was when several Westside mothers started informally congregating in homes and churches, laying down the foundation for changes that would not just help themselves, or even just Nevada’s women, but poor families throughout the country — black and white.

“We all started to talk about it and — you know, how women do,” Duncan says sweetly.

In just a few years, Duncan and the other mothers, were turning a hulking, burned-out junkie haven of a building — a relic from the sort of Harlem renaissance in the Westside in the 1950s — into a functioning community center providing healthcare, poverty programs and home-grown economic development to West Las Vegas for the first time. They staged one of the largest protest marches ever to occur on the Strip — all in the name of the poor.

People from the community were raising themselves up, thanks to their organization called Operation Life.

Then came Reaganomics and cuts to programs like welfare and food stamps. The government took grassroots programs such as Operation Life out of the hands of community activists. Soon their headquarters was again empty.

(for the rest, click the link above)

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