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Public Statements

Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. BEGICH. Mr. President, I rise today to recognize a great civil rights leader in Alaska and to join all Alaskans in celebrating Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

Almost 25 years ago, the Alaska State legislature designated today as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day to commemorate the signing of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, and to honor Ms. Peratrovich.

Elizabeth Peratrovich is a Tlingit Alaska Native who fought for equal rights for all Alaskans long before her now famous address to the Alaska legislature. She was grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and fought against the very public discrimination taking place against the first people of Alaska.

In many places in southeast Alaska just 60 years ago, public signs read: No Dogs, No Natives or Filipinos. Others simply said: No Natives Allowed.

There were separate drinking fountains and separate doors in public buildings. As Tlingits, the Peratrovichs could only purchase property in Native neighborhoods, could only be seated in segregated portions of the theater, and could only send their children to missionary schools--not the public schools for which they paid a school tax. In the face of this discrimination, Ms. Peratrovich demonstrated courage in her convictions--a courage which changed the course of civil rights treatment for Alaska Natives.

In 1941, Elizabeth and her husband Roy wrote a joint letter to Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening about their concerns. In part, they wrote:

My attention has been called to a business establishment ..... which has a sign on the door which reads, ``No Natives Allowed.'' In view of the present emergency when unity is being stressed, don't you think that it is very un-American?

We have always contended that we are entitled to every benefit that is accorded our so-called White Brothers. We pay the required taxes, taxes in some instances that we feel are unjust, such as the School tax. Our Native people pay the school tax each year to educate the White Children, yet they try to exclude our children from these schools. Although antidiscrimination legislation had been floating around the territorial legislature for years, it had not gained any traction.

Again, I want you to put your mind in this time. This was the 1940s. Many legislators believed Alaskan Natives were second-class citizens. Despite the fact they paid taxes and bore arms in defense of this Nation, they were not endowed with the same rights as others.

In 1945, however, hope emerged. Antidiscrimination legislation had passed the Alaska statehouse but was stalled in the State senate. One senator made a speech stating that Natives had only recently emerged from savagery and were not fit for society. He argued that they had not had the experience of 5,000 years of civilization.

With great courage and composure and poise, Elizabeth Peratrovich confronted the senator who had just belittled her and her people. Not only was she a Native addressing the mostly White Alaskan audience, she was also the first woman ever to address the Alaska State senate. In a quiet, steady, but bold voice, Elizabeth Peratrovich opened her testimony with the following words:

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.

She then recounted her experiences with discrimination--how she and her husband had not been allowed to lease a house in a White neighborhood; how she was prohibited from enrolling her children in the same schools as everyone else, the schools for which she paid a school tax. She talked about the embarrassment her children felt when they were not allowed to sit with their friends in the theater.

Following Elizabeth Peratrovich's speech, the senate exploded in applause. Her plea had been effective. The opposition that had been so absolute shrank to a mere whisper.

On February 8, 1945--again, I underline the date, thinking of our national history--on February 8, 1945, a bill to end discrimination in Alaska passed the senate by a vote of 11 to 5. Elizabeth Peratrovich had been instrumental in making Alaska the first organized government under the U.S. flag to condemn discrimination.

Today in Alaska we celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich Day and affirm our beliefs in equality. With each passing year we move closer to truly realizing the quote that all men are created equal and all are endowed with certain unalienable rights.

Thank you for allowing me to embrace the memory of one woman who fought for those fundamental principles, Alaskan Elizabeth Peratrovich.

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