For Women’s History Month, I knew just who I wanted to talk about: The Westside Mothers of Las Vegas. To me, they embody the power of women and grassroots organizing.
Even as Rat Pack names twinkled in the lights of the 1960s Las Vegas Strip, blacks were segregated into a section of town called the Westside and times were desperate. Among those struggling were single mothers Ruby Duncan, Rosie Lee Seals and many others. They were uneducated, poor and black. They didn’t have any experience as community organizers, but they were motivated to help their hungry children.
In just a few years, they would create an organization — Operation Life — that would grow far beyond their initial neighborhood meetings in living rooms and laundromats. Operation Life opened a community center providing healthcare, poverty programs and home-grown economic development to West Las Vegas for the first time. And they managed to bring the glittering Strip to a stand-still in one of the largest protest marches in Las Vegas Boulevard’s history.
According to Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, Annelise Orleck, even though modern-day welfare programs were passed by Congress in 1935, in the 1960s there was no way to force states to participate. And Nevada refused to participate. In addition, states could choose how they dispersed the money — like bigger checks for white women and a disproportionate number of raids on black households to find “cheats” of the system.
As it turned out, the Westside Mothers were not alone. In the late 1960s, a grassroots groundswell for welfare rights was happening all over the country.
On Saturday, March 6, 1971 the Westside Mothers led 1,500 others in a march down The Strip. According to Orleck’s book several national community organizers including, Cesar Chavez, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Jane Fonda marched up to Ceasars Palace and flooded the place with community activists and their children. Across the street, the Flamingo locked its doors.
All the sudden, the Westside Mothers weren’t just rallying for their own kids. They were a beacon of hope for hard-hit families all over the country.
But one protest was not enough to change the status quo. So the Westside Mothers promised to march every weekend until it did. One week after their first protest, they marched down to The Sands, but found the doors locked. So, they spread out across the width of the street and blocked traffic in both directions. The ultimate sit-in.
“Cars were backed up all the way to the California border,” Duncan told me in an interview in 2006.
“Operation Life was one of the first women-run community development corporations and the first group of poor women to run a Women and Infant Children (WIC) nutrition program,” writes Orleck in her book.
As the organization grew, Operation Life blossomed. It was uniquely run by the poor black welfare mothers who needed it and became a model agency, held up as an example of efficiency and productivity throughout the nation. As a testament to how far a cotton-picking sharecropper’s daughter had come, Duncan testified before Congress for welfare reform.
Unfortunately, Operation Life was shut down in the 1980s, crushed by the bureaucracy of the Reagan era.
But the Westside Mothers managed to do something few ever do: They elevated themselves above the station in life they were born into, and they cared enough to bring the community with them.
In recent years, Ruby Duncan has been honored with an elementary school being named after her in North Las Vegas. And in 2008 she received the prestigious Margaret Chase Smith award, which has previously been awarded to Rosa Parks and Jimmy Carter.