Alaskans of all ages, Native and non-Native, stood shoulder to shoulder, some on chairs. It was only the second time in the history of America that a bill to end discrimination had come up for an official vote, and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still two decades away. Mom looked first to the gallery, then to the legislators behind their wooden desks. When she was confident she had everyone’s attention, she began to speak. This is the story of how my mother came to give a speech that helped Alaska lead all of America in the battle for civil rights.
— From Roy Peratrovich Jr.’s Introduction to Fighter in Velvet Gloves
If anyone in the room thought the young woman before them would mince her words, they quickly realized their mistake.
Senator Shattuck rose and challenged her, “Will the proposed bill eliminate discrimination?”
Elizabeth answered confidently, “Do your laws against larceny and murder prevent those 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.”
— Elizabeth Peratrovich, 1957
In 1912, a year after Elizabeth was born, Native people from around Southeast Alaska met in Sitka to form the Alaska Native Brotherhood, or ANB, known as the oldest Indigenous civil rights organization in the world. Two years later, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, or ANS was formed. Elizabeth would become grand president of the ANS and her husband, Roy Peratrovich Sr., grand president of the ANB. Both organizations proved essential to them in the battle for civil rights.
On February 16, 1945, then territorial governor, Ernest Greuening signed the nation’s first anti-discrimination bill into law. The governor said of Elizabeth, “Her intelligence was obvious, her composure faultless, and her plea could not have been more effective.”
Every February 16, Alaskans honor Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911–1958) “…for her courageous, unceasing efforts to eliminate discrimination and bring about equal rights in Alaska.” (Alaska Statutes 44.12.065, Elizabeth Peratrovich Day).
Fighter in Velvet Gloves
About the Cover Illustration
Apayo Moor is a Yup’ik Eskimo from Aleknagik, Alaska. The artwork on the cover of this book is taken from her original poster, “We can do it,” which is on permanent display at the Anchorage Museum.
Annie’s nephew, Lael Tyler, a graphic designer in Portland, OR, helped design the cover using Apayo’s art work. Krista West, the editor from the University of Alaska Press finalized it.
Bristol Bay Summer
Fighter in Velvet Gloves