It’s been a bad week for Confederate generals, secessionist leaders and New World explorers, whose statues have been defaced, dismantled or decommissioned as part of the national uproar over racism.
Some type of counter-response from the White House is to be expected, but, as of this writing, what form it will take remains murky. Since there aren’t that many statues of historic American liberals to be found drawing bird splatter on America’s courthouse lawns, attention could turn to a high-profile target with which everyone is familiar — the Statue of Liberty.
Last summer, a day after rolling out a new immigration policy that strongly favors awarding green cards to those who arrive on our shores with enough cash to negate any need for public assistance, President Trump’s immigration chief gave reporters a new take on the poetic message carved on Lady Liberty’s plaque.
Instead of, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli said the poem should be updated to, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Two years before that, when the administration was pushing for a more restrictive immigration bill that favored applicants fluent in English, White House adviser Stephen Miller was asked how that policy fit in with the “huddled masses” quote engraved on the statue’s plaque.
“The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” he replied. “The poem you’re referring to was added later and is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
On that point, Miller was correct. The statue was unveiled in 1886, six years before throngs of immigrants began arriving at the nearby Ellis Island processing center, and 17 years before the plaque bearing the poem was added.
According to the Statue of Liberty Museum, Lady Liberty was not initially designed to welcome newcomers to America, but to celebrate the end of slavery. The statue was conceived in 1865 by a French abolitionist and U.S. Constitution scholar named Edouard de Laboulaye, who helped raise the funds needed to build the 305-foot statue — a process that dragged on for a number of years.
An early model of the statue shows Lady Liberty holding a torch with her right arm raised skyward, while her left hand gripped broken shackles and segments of chain.
In the model used to build the statue, Lady Liberty’s left hand grips a tablet, the cover of which bears the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. Links of broken chain were sculpted next to her feet on both the model and the completed statue, but due to the height of its supporting pedestal, those chains are difficult for visitors to see.
Twenty-one years after the Civil War ended, the statue was finally unveiled. By that time, it had become painfully obvious to former slaves and their descendants that black lives mattered little to white America. Since emancipation, Reconstruction laws had been pushed back, civil rights protections rolled back, and Jim Crow laws rolled out, allowing discrimination and segregation to continue.
The statue’s intended purpose — celebrating the end of slavery in America — was a bit underwhelming to black journalists of the day.
“It is proper that the torch of the statue should not be lighted until this country becomes a free one in reality,” wrote an opinion writer for the Cleveland Gazette, an African American owned weekly. “Liberty lighting the world, indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not, rather, does not, protect its citizens within its own borders.”
The writer suggested the statue should be “shoved, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered. ... The idea of the liberty of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous.”
The statue’s intended purpose never generated traction. By the time the plaque engraved with the “Huddled Masses” poem was installed in 1903, the statue had become a landmark for 12 million immigrants who would disembark one mile to the south at Ellis Island in the years to come.