FAIRBANKS — When Paula Haley tells people outside of Alaska about the history of civil rights in the state, she says they are often shocked.
“I tell them that in 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus, a 17-year-old girl was arrested and spent a night in jail for refusing to give up her seat in the ‘whites-only’ section of Nome’s Dream Theater,” Haley said.
Alberta Schenk’s refusal to leave her theater seat was cited during the 1945 Territorial Legislature’s hearings that led to the passage of Alaska’s anti-discrimination law. Eighteen years later, the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights was founded. The commission celebrated it’s 50th anniversary Wednesday in Fairbanks in conjunction with the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
Schenck is just one part of the state’s little-known civil rights history that Haley, executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, and John Schmelzer of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, want to see rewritten into the nation’s shared civil rights story. Schmelzer — who is responsible for acquainting new agency executives because of his extensive institutional knowledge — said he wasn’t aware of the civil rights movement in Alaska until Haley told him about it. He then researched it.
“I did not know it was such a vibrant history replete with protests of people not being treated well in the territory and then early in the state,” said Schmelzer. “The Territory of Alaska was protecting women, in terms of wages, well before the United States even had an Equal Pay Act, and the Alaska Commission for Human Rights preceded the federal (commission).”
Haley said that while most incidences of discrimination 50 years ago were blatant, most of the cases her office hears today are much more nuanced. She said the cases that the commission mediates or litigates most often are the result of discrimination in the workplace.
“The number one reason people file is race-based complaints, and then sex-based complaints, and then the third, typically, is disability complaints, followed closely, even in our young state, by age-based complaints,” Haley said. Since the 1960s, discrimination has changed, Schmelzer said.
“Discrimination still exists, it is still with us, but it is much more subtle and it is sometimes more difficult to prove,” Schmelzer said. “That is sort of the new face of discrimination.”
In 2012, the Alaska commission saw a 33 percent increase in the number of discrimination complaints filed compared to the previous year. Even in the face of increasing discrimination complaints, Haley said there is one thing Alaskans should be proud of.
“I hope that Alaskans can be proud of this rich history,” Haley said. “Be proud of the fact that even if our civil rights history is similar to that of the rest of our country, some of it was happening sooner here.”