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Every so often in history, there arrives the one person capable of doing the right thing at the right moment to bring a great change.
On Feb. 5, 1945, that one person was Elizabeth Peratrovich.
She had been sitting in the gallery of the Alaska Territorial Senate, listening to the debate on the proposed Anti-Discrimination Act that would guarantee “full and equal enjoyment” of public establishments to all Alaskans, and would ban discriminatory signage based on race.
Peratrovich and her husband, Roy Peratrovich, had been fighting for such legislation for a period of years, and had seen a similar bill fail to pass the Territorial Legislature in 1943.
And so it was that when the Senate completed its debate on Feb. 5, 1945, and the floor was opened for public comment, Elizabeth Peratrovich rose to speak.
She described the injustices experienced by her family and other Native people based upon race, and asked that the legislators approve the anti-discrimination bill.
“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,” she said, according to a New York Times obituary.
Peratrovich, who at the time was grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, neatly parried a comment by then Sen. Allen Shattuck. Shattuck earlier had asked: “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”
Peratrovich’s response was this: “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.”
Peratrovich’s speech is said to have broken the opposition to the anti-discrimination legislation, which the Territorial Senate passed 11-5 on Feb. 8, 1945 — the first anti-discrimination bill in a U.S. state or territory.
We do not know what might have occurred if Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich had not so passionately fought against discrimination in Alaska, or if Elizabeth had not spoken so ably that day. But they did fight, and her words found their mark. She was the right person, at the right time.
Elizabeth Peratrovich died in 1958 at the age of 47.
She has been rightfully honored in this state, which in 1988 established Feb. 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in Alaska. Here in Ketchikan, where Peratrovich graduated from Ketchikan High School, the U.S. Forest Service’s Southeast Alaska Discovery Center features a permanent two-part exhibit regarding her life, in addition to the Elizabeth Peratrovich Theater facility.
Now, there is a national recognition.
On Friday, the U.S. MInt unveiled a new 2020 $1 U.S. coin that’s part of the Native American $1 Coin Act of 2007. One side of the coin features a portrait of Peratrovich, along with an image of a raven as emblematic of her Tlingit heritage, and the words “Anti-discrimination Law of 1945.”
It’s a small token of recognition. And although not many of these coins are made, we hope some of them enter circulation and travel widely. That way, every so often, someone far from Alaska might be struck with the curiosity to learn about the person whose image is on the coin, and become inspired by Elizabeth Peratrovich, too.