Op - Ed: Elizabeth Peratrovich: an Alaska hero

The Fourth of July, our Independence Day, is a time to recognize the American heroes -- from the founders to soldiers who have devoted, risked or lost their lives in the name of our freedom. It's an especially important day this year for Alaskans as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Elizabeth Peratrovich's birth. Quite appropriately, Elizabeth was born on Independence Day.

There are few names in Alaska's history that exemplify progress and lasting, timeless impact more than Elizabeth Peratrovich. She is remembered as one of the greatest civil rights activists and female leaders we have ever known. Elizabeth and her husband, Roy Peratrovich, are to the Native peoples of Alaska what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are to African-Americans.

Elizabeth, a member of the Lukaaxádi clan, in the Raven moiety of the Tlingit tribe, was born in Petersburg in 1911. It was a time when there was little difference between the Jim Crow segregation laws in the South and the discrimination experienced by Alaska Natives in our own state. Elizabeth married Klawock Tlingit Roy Peratrovich, and the young couple moved to Juneau. Their hearts sank when they learned in their new hometown they were prohibited from purchasing a house because they were Native. Unthinkable to many of us today, they encountered shop signs that read, "No Natives Allowed" and "No Dogs or Indians."

On Dec. 30, 1941, the Peratrovich family began its campaign to end discrimination against Alaska Natives. As a direct result of Roy and Elizabeth's passionate lobbying, the Alaska Territorial Legislature considered an antidiscrimination bill. It was defeated, but Elizabeth and Roy refused to back down. Two years later, in 1945, the antidiscrimination measure was back before the Legislature. It passed the House of Representatives but was met with harsh opposition in the Senate.

One senator asked his fellow legislators, "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 listening from the Senate gallery and requested the opportunity to address the Senate from the gallery. In a calm voice she said, "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." When Elizabeth concluded her speech, the room burst into applause.

On Feb. 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.

The Alaska civil rights movement is not a story that many Americans know. But it is certainly something that all Alaskans should be incredibly proud of. Elizabeth Peratrovich was an ambassador for justice and an advocate for Alaska Native people. In the Last Frontier, her name represents steadfast hope, perseverance and landmark change. We are all living in a better Alaska today as a result of her fearless fight for equality.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July and what would have been Elizabeth Peratrovich's 100th birthday, we pay homage to our Founding Fathers But we also remember and commemorate the brave men and women who have fought throughout our nation's history -- not just in the trenches abroad but in our streets and towns nationwide -- to help America realize her promise.

Please join me in honoring Peratrovich today, and in the fulfillment of the American Dream to all who yearn for freedom and dignity.