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.
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.