As we celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich Day today (Feb. 16), all Alaskans can be proud that Alaska was the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination bill. A few states had statutes that addressed discrimination but nothing like Alaska’s bill. It took great effort by many people to make this history, but none were more dedicated than Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich.
From Alaska's transfer from Russian to American control in 1867 to the bill's hearing in 1945, Alaska had already had its full share of racial injustice and inequality. Death penalty statistics revealed that only non-whites faced such a sentence. Alaska's first peoples would have to fight for citizenship (finally obtained in 1924), and housing was discriminatory. Educational systems favored white Americans, and others were often segregated to vocational schools. There was even a day when a cross was burned on a hill over Juneau. Chinese, African-Americans and Alaska Natives were denied access to many public places. Signs openly scorned their entry.
In the 1940s, while World War II raged, disproportionate numbers of Alaska's indigenous peoples participated in the armed forces. Native women did their part. A few joined the Navy as WAVES (Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service), and even my non-English speaking great-grandmother volunteered at the USO, while all her sons served overseas. Yet, Native women were not allowed to be seen publicly with a soldier. It was during these times that Tlingit Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood leaders, Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich, dedicated years to ending this blatant discrimination.
Elizabeth and Roy had one primary focus -- to address head-on all instances of discrimination, and to advocate for a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against others based on race. They uprooted from their village home life and moved to Juneau to diligently focus on lobbying for a bill with the encouragement of Gov. Ernest Gruening. Gruening was not well liked by many legislators who had other ideas for Alaska. The small territorial legislature met only every other year, and for 60-day sessions, so introduction or tabling of a bill was time sensitive.
Personal and political resentments are not new, and certainly were at play in the 1940s with executive and legislative branches at odds. The rumor mills stirred the pot against Gruening, and had been used to unjustly oust the first Alaska Native legislator, William Paul, from office. Using ugly tactics to get one's way was all too frequent, including promising to vote one way and then do otherwise. Such was the political climate.
When the first anti-discrimination bill was introduced, it failed. It was discouraging to Roy and Elizabeth, but they persevered, committing more time to walking the halls of the Capitol, and building public support. Two years later it was reintroduced by Mayor Anderson of Nome. As a result of apportionment, two Alaska Native legislators were elected in 1944: Frank Peratrovich and Andrew Hope, and the ANB/ANS convention in Kake that year passed an anti-discrimination resolution.
Across Alaska there was talk and debate about discrimination, and the "super-race" theory that would aggravate discourse as the bill moved from the House to the Senate. There was social tension, and the public was not sure whether the bill would pass, and speculated about what it would mean.
Although accounts of the hearing are only known by news articles, Gruening's autobiography, and by witnesses who shared the story, one thing was clear: People were moved by Elizabeth's speech to the Senate. The bill did pass.
Periodically, we may debate as to what made the difference in the vote that day. But the fact remains, Alaska had great need for an anti-discrimination law, and for Roy and Elizabeth it is was one of many battles. They pursued veteran rights, health care and education improvements with the same zeal. We have had many great Alaskans heroically stand up for human and civil rights in the name of democracy. Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is our celebration of that success.
Diane E Benson is an assistant professor of Alaska Native studies and rural development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; a former two-term president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Camp 8; and one of the writers of the film "For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska." The opinion here expressed is her own.