Remembering Elizabeth Peratrovich: Alaska's Civil Rights Legacy

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Photo from the Alaska State Library.
“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.”
For those who know anything about Elizabeth Peratrovich, this sound bite from her famous remarks to the Territorial Legislature is probably what they think of. Her signature accomplishment was the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, which made Alaska the first place in the United States to outlaw racial discrimination. The floor speech she delivered immediately before the bill passed the Territorial Senate is what she is best known for, but her systematic efforts to fight discrimination in Alaska started long before she set foot in the Senate chambers.

When Elizabeth and her husband Roy first moved to Juneau in 1941, they found themselves unable to buy or rent in the neighborhood of their choice, and signs in front of businesses advertised “We Cater to White Trade Only,” “No Natives Allowed,” and “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.” In response to this, and reports of active discrimination in other communities, Elizabeth and Roy published
an open letter to Governor Gruening in the Ketchikan Fishing News objecting to the double standard of Native men being asked to fight in the war when they were not granted the decency of equal access to businesses in their own communities. As they wrote:
We, as Indians, consider this an outrage because we are the real Natives of Alaska by reason of our ancestors who have guarded these shores and woods for years past. We will still be here to guard our beloved country while hordes of uninterested whites will be fleeing South.
The war effort became a rallying point for anti-discrimination efforts. When the Commanding Officer of the Juneau Army Corps forbade “troops from having any contact with Native Alaskans,” Roy Peratrovich wrote another letter pointing out the fact that there were already Native Alaskans in the Juneau Army Corps. He demanded that they be treated with the same respect as their white counterparts.

At the same time, Elizabeth and other members of the Alaska Native Sisterhood staged a protest demanding that if local businesses were to be allowed to post “No Indians Allowed” signs, they fully expected the same sign to be placed in the window of the Selective Service office. They also organized strategic ambushes of elected officials: one person would set up a one-on-one meeting with a legislator and then show up with three or four friends, each with stories to share about being rejected by local businesses, harassed by military police for socializing with their own relatives, and excluded from the USO clubs.

While these public efforts were under way, Elizabeth and Roy were also working closely with Governor Gruening to help build Native political power and move the state into a position where anti-discrimination legislation could become a reality. Gruening was a strong ally to the Native community and developed a reputation for intervening in incidents of discrimination, writing and visiting officials — ranging from the Mayor of Nome to President Roosevelt — and taking them to task.

In collaboration with Anthony Dimond, Alaska’s non-voting delegate in the U.S. House, Gruening and the Peratroviches developed a two-part strategy: Roy and Elizabeth traveled around the state (at their own expense) “educating, convincing, taking note of the slightest example of discrimination,” and starting up new chapters of their respective organizations, while Gruening and Dimond worked to convince Congress to expand the Territorial Legislature from 24 seats to 40. When that change was implemented in 1944, it allowed the Native community to secure a voice in the Legislature (two Tlingit men were elected the following year, with widespread support) and in general provided a much higher level of local accountability.

The Anti-Discrimination Act was first introduced in the Territorial Legislature in 1943, and Elizabeth and Roy visited the Capitol daily to try and sway what was expected to be an extremely close vote. The opposition was still loud and strong at this point, and after a series of “overwhelmingly negative” testimony about the uncivilized nature of Alaska Natives, the bill failed by a single vote after a delegate from Anchorage reversed his position and voted against it.

When the newly expanded legislature convened in 1945 and the bill was again brought up for consideration, Elizabeth and Roy came armed with copious amounts of research comparing the proposal with similar laws in seven other states – a feat of legal research that was undoubtedly far more difficult in the 1940s than it is today. The most compelling thing they brought to the table was their testimony, though – at the time, the Territorial Legislature provided an opportunity for anyone present at a hearing to share their views on a piece of legislation. Thanks to the Peratroviches’ mobilization efforts, the Senate chamber was “packed to the rafters.”
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Photo from the Alaska State Library.

Elizabeth’s
famous remarks came after hours of shockingly offensive debate and testimony before the “all-male, mostly White” Territorial Senate. Several senators espoused their opinions that “mixed breeds” like the Peratroviches were the source of all racial tensions, and one stated that he “personally would prefer not to have to sit next to these Natives in a theater” because “they smell bad.” Others argued that segregation was beneficial for all parties involved, and one church leader shared his belief that it would take 30-100 years for Natives to reach the same level of civility as their white counterparts.

After Elizabeth spoke, though, the senators had nothing left to say, and the bill passed easily by a vote of 11-5. Elizabeth and Roy celebrated by dancing the night away at the Baranof Hotel, which had just taken down its “No Natives Allowed” sign a few hours earlier; the bill was signed into law by Governor Gruening 69 years ago this week, with Elizabeth standing at his side.

Alaska has come far in the past 69 years, but racism and other forms of discrimination are still pressing issues. Our elected officials keep finding ways to remind us that we’re a long way from a truly equal state, but Elizabeth Peratrovich’s legacy also offers us a reminder: with dedication, organizing, and the right allies, a small group of people can make a powerful impact.
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Originally posted at the Alaska Commons.
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