Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Racism and Jim Crow in Alaska

If you have been following the news up here in Alaska, you may have read about the recent redistricting cycle.  The board in charge of drawing the lines has released their proclamation plan, and it will now likely go to court.  One of the interesting aspects of redistricting in Alaska has to do with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Alaska is one of the few states, along with Arizona and the Deep South, that have been determined to have discriminatory voting procedures in the past and are forced to have their statewide plan approved by the US Department of Justice.  Many people don't think of Alaska when they think of Jim Crow, so what is the history.

Restaurant in 1908 Juneau advertising that there is no Native staff

Unlike the South, there has never been much of a African-American population within the state, and therefore no real discrimination against them at the governmental level.  Alaska Natives have been the victims, despite being a majority of the population for much of the pre-statehood period.  Often they were not served by restaurants and movie theaters, or were forced to sit in segregated sections.  Following the grant of US citizenship to native peoples by Congress in 1924, Alaska passed a literacy test law to limit Native voting.  Native rights organizations caused general concern among some whites that natives would take over the state politically.  Schools also remained segregated, with whites attending different schools from natives.

Students at the all-native school in Stevens Village 1912

During the Great Depression, the tables started to turn.  Groups such as the Alaska Native Brotherhood became more aggressive in demanding equal rights for Alaska Natives.  In 1939, Ernest Gruening was appointed the territorial governor of Alaska.  Sympathetic on civil rights issues, he helped push through a civil rights bill in 1945.  One of the more memorable moments was during the session, after many legislators had made statements to the effect of that Natives would take thousands of years to catch up to white civilization, Elizabeth Peratrovich rose to give testimony.  An Alaska native from the village of Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, she systematically demolished all the arguments for segregation.  The gallery rose in applause, and the bill eventually passed by an large margin.  It was 1945, the first civil rights bill to pass in the United States since Reconstruction and 20 years before the national bill.

Signing of the bill.  From left to right, Nome Senator O.D. Cochran, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Ernest Gruening, Nome Representative Edward Anderson, Ketchikan Senator N.R. Walker, and Roy Peratrovich (future Klawock Senator)

So if Alaska Natives were equal under the law in 1945, why is Alaska a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act.  It had to do with the extension to language minorities in 1975.  Alaska was not a covered jurisdiction during the first 10 years of the Act.  Over the objections of both Alaska senators and the governor, the Act was extended to include language minorities.  Alaska was determined to have not effectively made voting provisions for Alaska Natives who do not speak English as a first language or at all.  Ever since, two things have happened.  Alaska has need preclearance from the Justice department for all voting laws and election districts, and the debate has continued over whether the state does enough to provide for Alaska Native voters.  Recently, the case of Nick et al. v. Bethel et al. tested the notion that Alaska is violating the law by not providing Yupik election materials.  The ruling came down that Yupik is not a historically written language, so only oral help in Yupik is required.  This fight, like the fight over redistricting, will no doubt continue into the future.
 Voting in Point Hope during the 1950s

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