A Civil Rights Leader You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Posted on: February 19th, 2014

By Tonei Glavinic
M.A. Candidate, Social Justice and Community Development
Full version published by the Alaska Commons on February 17, 2014.

Portrait of Elizabeth Peratrovich from the Alaska State Library.

Portrait of Elizabeth Peratrovich 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.” – Elizabeth Peratrovich

Alaska became the first place in the United States to outlaw racial discrimination in February 1945 thanks to the work of Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit (Alaska Native) woman. The above quote comes from the famous remarks she delivered immediately before the bill passed the Territorial Senate, 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 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.

In the months of public organizing following that letter, Elizabeth and Roy worked 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.

The Anti-Discrimination Act was first introduced in the Territorial Legislature in 1943, but failed by a single vote. When the bill came up again two years later, 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.”

Governor Ernest Gruening signs the Anti-Discrimination Act on February 16, 1945. Photo from the Alaska State Library.

Governor Ernest Gruening signs the Anti-Discrimination Act on February 16, 1945. 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.

We have 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 equality, 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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