Alaska Civil Rights Day this past week, together with Elizabeth Peratrovich Day coming Feb. 16, focuses our attention on historical symbols meant to convey a sense of achievement in the evolution of our culture.
For Civil Rights Day, the symbol is Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.
For Elizabeth Peratrovich Day it is the testimony she gave before the vote of the territorial senate the day they passed the Alaska anti-discrimination act of 1945, particularly her witty response to an earlier remark one of the senators had made. He had marveled that people just recently out of savagery should want to associate with people with a background of 5,000 years of civilization. Peratrovich wondered how it was that she, so recently out of savagery, knew the American Bill of Rights better than he.
Both symbols, King and Peratrovich, are stand-ins for a broad and complex history, distilling events that took place over a longer period of time and involved the work of many people into convenient and tangible shorthand. The civil rights movement might be said to have begun with the Brown v Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954; the movement stretched beyond Congress's passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Alaska's anti-discrimination act had its birth in the anomaly of Alaska Natives serving in the armed forces during World War II defending American freedom and equality, and coming home on leave to the prejudice and segregation that characterized America and Alaska in the 1940s. Another source was Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening's liberal background and his discomfiture over the blatant audacity of signs in public places that read "No Natives Allowed."
Historical symbols are necessary if we are to draw anything from history beyond entertainment, for few people have the luxury of the time needed to become conversant with its complexities, ambiguities and inconsistencies. We use Dr. King's and Mrs. Peratrovich's speeches, as we use most historical symbols, to congratulate ourselves that our culture no longer manifests the failings of the past, that we have evolved into something better. They also remind us of work yet to be done.
There were failings aplenty on the issue of civil rights in Alaska's past. In 1924, when the Tlingit leader of the Alaska Native Brotherhood William Paul was first elected to the Alaska territorial legislature, the first Native to be elected to that body (and also the first Native to be certified an attorney before the Alaska bar), newspaper editorials called for a white man's political party, and warned readers that Alaska's schools would be corrupted and ruined if Natives gained political standing: they would insist on integration.
To go back even further, under the charters of the Russian American Company, Natives had some legal standing, and people called by the Russians creoles, who were people of mixed heritage - Russian and Alaska Native - had a level of citizenship. After the American purchase, those people were denied citizenship in the United States and were all lumped together as "uncivilized," and therefore denied the equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
But it is tricky to judge the past by the standards of today. We must pick our way gingerly between values we consider absolute and universal, on the one hand, and the cultural context in which the failings of the past occurred. The people who opposed integration in Alaska in 1924 and 1945, and those who opposed it in Little Rock in 1957 and in the Boston school bussing riots in 1974, were well-intentioned. They thought they were doing the right thing in opposing forced integration, as did the American eugenicists of earlier in the century who supported the sterilization of anyone who might be classified as defective in any way. People who hold such views today are seen as caricatures and are usually ridiculed. But in an earlier time they were a majority.
A generation or more hence, we, too, will be judged and found wanting for some of our beliefs and practices. It should give us pause as we recall the cultural symbols of our evolution.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.