Equality on My Mind; Elizabeth Peratrovich Day

16 02 2012

You know this story:

Mr. & Mrs. P were eager for their move into a new community.                  A nice house, conveniently located near Mr. P’s workplace.                    The deal was abruptly revoked when the property owner met his buyers.

Though Mr & Mrs. P’s taxes paid for the local public schools, their children weren’t allowed to attend.

Walking down Main Street, they saw sign after sign posted on businesses, explicitly stating that “their kind” wasn’t welcome.

You know this story, but perhaps it’s not the one you’re expecting.

The year was 1941. Alaska was still a territory. Mr. and Mrs. P were Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit family with two children. They had just moved to Juneau, where they discovered the extent of inequality facing Alaska Natives.

Alaskan playwright Diane Benson as Elizabeth Peratrovich. Photo by Bill Hess.

As presidents of the Alaska Native Sisterhood/Brotherhood, she and her husband approached Governor Gruening. They began a two year battle to bring an anti-discrimination bill before the Alaska Legislature.

The Governor was supportive; many senators were not. Opponents talked out of both sides of their mouths, dismissing the bill as unnecessary while arguing  it wouldn’t stop discrimination. Racial tension would escalate in response – as would intermarriage, increasing the “mixed race problem.”

Senator Allen Shattuck demanded, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”

When the floor opened for public testimony, Elizabeth Peratrovich stepped to the podium.  A composed woman in the most heated discussions, she began, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.”

Calm and deliberate, Mrs. Peratrovich described the legal exclusions Alaska Natives experienced. She told the senators, “There are three kinds of persons who practice discrimination. First, the politician who wants to maintain an inferior minority group so he can always promise them something. Second, the Mr. and Mrs. Jones who aren’t quite sure of their social position and who are nice to you on one occasion and can’t see you on others, depending on who they are with. Third, the great superman who believes in the superiority of the white race.”

When Shattuck asked if she believed a law would eliminate discrimination, she replied, “Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”

The room erupted in applause, and the bill passed, 11-5. On February 16, 1945, the territory of Alaska signed America’s first anti-discrimination legislation.

*****

That may have been the last time that my home state was ahead of the social justice curve. Though Alaska’s Jim Crow laws were formally abolished in 1945, the explicit signage on storefronts has been replaced by coded shorthand, sotto voce commentary by those who believe they’re in like-minded company. These conversations have a lot to do with my deckhand decision-making these days – when Hate and Fear are your primary shipmates, the crewshare is never worth the price of the show.

Alaskans are still trudging a long, heavily rutted road towards equality.  The battle Elizabeth Peratrovich led over 70 years ago wages on, now for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. While Cap’n J and I spent Monday night celebrating Washington State’s long-awaited Marriage Equality, Anchorage still battles for the most basic of civil rights, housing and employment protections for LGBT citizens. As if quoting directly from the wrong side of Alaskan history, Mayor Sullivan vetoed the 2009 ordinance, denying any such protections are necessary.

I find myself wondering who will stand up as this movement’s Elizabeth.

Thanks to Bill Hess for sharing his photo with Hooked. His blog, Logbook Wasilla, is here; you can also read his powerful story of Diane Benson’s one-woman play, “When My Spirit Raised Its Hands,” here.  Also, thanks to Dave Kiffer for his excellent 2008 article, “Alaska Celebrates Civil Rights Pioneer,” available here.


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10 responses

17 02 2012
Annie

Tele,
Incredible story of Elizabeth Peratrovich. I knew nothing about what she and her family faced in Alaska, but I must stay I am proud of my birth state, Washington, for doing the right thing. I hope Alaska and other states follow.

20 02 2012
Tele

Thanks for stopping by, Annie! Here’s another one for you: Alberta Schenck of Nome, the “Rosa Parks of Alaska.” Beyond celebrating the Peratrovichs’ achievements, this story made me think about the tremendous number of courageous people required to slowly create social change – and how few of those heroes we hear about.

17 02 2012
rosseliot

Here’s hoping Oregon catches up…I’ll be doing my part.

20 02 2012
Tele

Ross, you’re doing your part, and a few other folks’, too. Thanks for being one of my sources of inspiration.

17 02 2012
Dennis Gallear

Blessed with another day to live breath and travel on free soil. Very proud of those who have and are fighting for equal rights on this Alaska State holiday.

20 02 2012
Tele

Well said, Dennis! Thank you for visiting Hooked and commenting; hope to see you here again.

19 02 2012
niki meier

i can’t believe i live in a world that basic human rights are even debated by politicians
how vain to think one has the right to legislate their beliefs on another
it makes me sad
everyone has the right to love anyone they choose and have a baby when they want one

20 02 2012
Tele

Sad, but not immobilized, Niki. You’re a powerful example of what comes from one person’s commitment to helping others to be their best, healthiest selves. Pretty significant social action, when those are people who so many others would like to forget about, or keep at the bottom. As one crazy headline follows the next, I spend a lot of time these days wondering, “What would Steve say?” and challenging myself to bring a smidgeon of his ferocity to my conversations. I’m thankful to both of you for being such inspirations.

21 02 2012
boz

Hi Tele, My parents were in Juneau at that time. Two decades later, while watching the tv news coverage of the 1964 civil rights act, my dad spoke of Mrs. P’s testimony. I remember him saying, “It takes time, kids, but eventually Americans do the right thing”. My current state, Iowa, has marriage equity and many more states are moving towards it. So now, as an old fart echoing another old fart’s words, let me say, ” It takes time, kids. But eventually Americans do the right thing”. Let’s all remember that each generation must struggle for its civil rights against those who would take us backwards. Love and peace from the land of tall corn!

22 02 2012
Tele

Boz, thank you so much for your comment! I’m delighted that you dropped by, and appreciate the historical perspective as much as the accompanying sentiment. I agree with you that no generation can afford to become complacent – which makes me a little nervous sometimes, in this era of reality show/pseudo-celebrity values and sound-bite attention spans, but I’m hanging onto hope.

(Old fart wisdom is definitely welcome here on Hooked, by the way – I’m grateful for every peace-mongering, progressive elder I encounter. Best wishes back, friend.)




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