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Civil rights from Montgomery to Copper River

Capitol Notebook

Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2002

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

When observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, don't forget about the white urban hunters and fishermen in Alaska.

A couple of legislators who have been chafing under the federal government management of subsistence hunting and fishing say that the rural priority in the federal law oppresses them in a way that's comparable to what Southern blacks suffered in the 1950s.

Last summer, when Gov. Tony Knowles called his Subsistence Leadership Summit and announced that he would not appeal the Katie John court case, Rosa Parks was invoked by Sen. Robin Taylor.

Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, said that the geographically based discrimination approved by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and by the majority at the governor's summit reminded him of racial segregation. In two interviews, Taylor compared it to the discrimination resisted by Parks, the black woman who refused to sit at the back of the bus, thereby launching the modern civil rights movement under the leadership of Dr. King.

I didn't expect to hear that comparison again. But when legislators came back to Juneau, I did.

Rep. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican, said he still believes that Knowles should be impeached for not appealing the Katie John case to the U.S. Supreme Court, although he discovered that "my colleagues don't have the stomach for it."

Ogan said he's no different than an Alaska Native in the Bush who has a traditional use of fish and game for subsistence.

"I have the same spiritual connectedness to the land. I feel it in my blood: I think these are genetic things that are passed on."

But in his support of his position, Ogan also noted that he grew up in the South and said he remembers "white only" signs from his childhood.

Putting aside the issue of whether a rural priority is good public policy or not, there's a question here of hyperbole. Have high-pressure water hoses or police dogs - let alone lynching - been used to oppress Alaska sportsmen?

Rep. Joe Hayes, a Fairbanks Democrat who is one of two black legislators, expressed surprise at Taylor's and Ogan's references to Jim Crow. "I find it amazing that you would use that type of metaphor for a situation where folks were dying ... churches being blown up, dogs mangling children."

Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof, in a different context, has been talking recently about dysfunctional politics in Alaska, in which people refuse to budge from extreme positions. The comparison between subsistence and segregation might be an example that justifies Geldhof's concern.

But all of us are prey to blind spots. An example would be the folks at Health and Social Services who thought an expenditure of state funds for a smoking shelter wouldn't attract unfavorable attention.

So allow me to confess the parameters of my perspective: I've lived off of supermarket food my whole life.

And I have roots in the civil rights struggle. My grandmother, Jane Emery Newton, was Richard Wright's patron when he wrote the landmark race-relations novel "Native Son," and is often assumed to be the model for the character Mary Dalton. Jane also was arrested and subjected to a psychiatric commitment hearing after her interracial marriage to another black man, my grandfather, an event sensationalized nationally by the Hearst newspapers in 1934.

Not to rely solely on my own instincts, therefore, I'll throw this out for reader feedback in what will be an admittedly unscientific survey.

Please e-mail me with responses to the following proposition: "There is moral equivalence between the geographical discrimination in the rural subsistence priority in Alaska and the racial discrimination in the South in the 1950s."

Is this:

(A) An insightful way of looking at the subsistence issue, addressing the core American value of equality?;

(B) A ludicrous and insensitive analogy that makes resolution harder to achieve?; or

(C) Something else? (Be specific.)

I'll print a summary of the responses next week.

Bill McAllister, who means no offense to people who use guns regularly, can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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