Tribute to Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovichby Senator Lisa Murkowski
Posted on 2013-02-14
MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, there are few names in Alaska's
history that exemplify progress and timeless impact more than Elizabeth
Peratrovich. She is remembered as one of the greatest civil rights
activists and female leaders Alaska has ever seen. Elizabeth and her
husband Roy are to the Native peoples of Alaska what Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr., and Rosa Parks are to African Americans. Everybody knows
about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but hardly anyone
outside the State of Alaska knows about Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich.
Today, I wish to again share the Peratrovich legacy with the Senate
because February 16, 2013, the State of Alaska will observe Elizabeth
Peratrovich Day for the 24th time. Activities to celebrate the legacy
of Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich are taking place in schools and
cultural centers throughout Alaska this week. The Alaska State Museum
in Juneau is already honoring this remarkable woman in an exhibit
entitled ``Alaskan. Native. Woman. Activist,'' which will run until
March 16, 2013.
In addition to the annual observance of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, the State of Alaska has acknowledged Elizabeth's contribution to history by designating one of the public galleries in the Alaska House of Representatives as the Elizabeth Peratrovich Gallery.
Elizabeth, a member of the Lukaaxadi clan, in the Raven moiety of the Tlingit tribe, was born in Petersburg in 1911. After attending college she married Roy Peratrovich, a Tlingit from Klawock, Alaska, and the couple had three beautiful children. In 1941 the young family moved to Juneau, excited by the new opportunities the move would present. When the family found the perfect house, they were not allowed to buy it because they were Native. They could not enter the stores or restaurants they wanted. Outside some of these establishments, there were signs that read ``No Natives Allowed.'' History has also recorded a sign that read ``No Dogs or Indians allowed.'' On December 30, 1941, following the invasion of Pearl Harbor, Elizabeth and Roy wrote to Alaska's Territorial Governor: In the present emergency our Native boys are being called upon to defend our beloved country. There are no distinctions being made there. Yet when we patronized business establishments we are told in most cases that Natives are not allowed.
The proprietor of one business, an inn, does not seem to realize that our Native boys are just as willing to lay down their lives to protect the freedom he enjoys. Instead he shows his appreciation by having a ``No Natives Allowed'' sign on his door.
In that letter Elizabeth and Roy also noted: We were shocked when the Jews were discriminated against in Germany. Stories were told of public places having signs ``No Jews Allowed.'' All freedom loving people were horrified at what was being practiced in our own country.
In 1943, the Alaska Legislature, at the behest of Roy and Elizabeth, considered an antidiscrimination law. It was defeated, but Roy and Elizabeth were not. Two years later, in 1945, the antidiscrimination measure was brought back before the Alaska Territorial Legislature. It passed the lower [[Page S768]] house, but was met with stiff opposition in the Territorial Senate.
One by one, Senators took to the floor to debate the closely contested legislation. One Senator argued that ``the races should be kept further apart.'' This Senator went on to rhetorically question, ``Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?'' Elizabeth Peratrovich was observing the debate from the gallery. As a citizen, she asked to be heard and in accordance with the custom of the day, was recognized to express her views.
In a quiet, dignified and steady voice this ``fighter with velvet gloves'' responded, ``I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded history behind them of our Bill of Rights.'' She was then asked by a Senator if she thought the proposed bill would eliminate discrimination. Elizabeth queried in rebuttal, ``Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent these 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.'' When she finished her speech the room burst into thunderous applause. The territorial Senate passed the bill by a vote of 11 to 5. On February 16, 1945, before Alaska gained statehood, and before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke of his dream for equality, Alaskans passed an antidiscrimination bill that provided for full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations for all Alaskans.
That night, Roy and Elizabeth celebrated. The two went dancing at the Baranof Hotel, one of Juneau's finest. They danced among people they didn't know, in a place where, the day before, they were unwelcome.
There is an important lesson to be learned from the battles of Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich. Even in defeat, they knew that change would come from their participation in our political system. They were not discouraged by their defeat in 1943. They came back fighting stronger than ever and enjoyed the victory 2 years later.
Elizabeth would not live to see the United States adopt the same law she brought to Alaska in 1945. She passed away in 1958, at the age of 47, 6 years before civil rights legislation would pass nationally.
Roy Peratrovich saw that event. He passed away in 1989 at age 81. He died 9 days before the first Elizabeth Peratrovich Day was observed in the State of Alaska. But the Peratrovich legacy and family live on. This past summer I had the opportunity to welcome Nathan Peratrovich, great-grandnephew of Roy and Elizabeth, to Washington DC. I was awestruck at the magnitude of his visit. Here was a young man who never knew the discrimination his ancestors knew. He was never told he could not enter a store because of his race. He was never denied access to a school because of who his parents were. As we looked down on the Senate floor from the Senate gallery, I encouraged Nathan by stating that one day he could represent Alaska in the United States Senate. Nathan grew up with all the rights and liberties every young boy should have. All of this was possible because of his family. Seeing his face and knowing what a significant impact his family had on his current wellbeing struck me with a sense of appreciation. It is with that appreciation I honor Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich today.