1) View of Liberty Island from Battery Park, 2009. 2) This photo shows the Vietnam Veterans Against the War takeover of the Statue of Liberty in 1976, hanging flags of protest from her Crown. Photo courtesy of www.vvaw.org. 3) A Puerto Rican Flag hanging from the Statue of Liberty after it was occupied by a Puerto Rican nationalist group on October 25, 1977. Photo taken by Neaql Boenzi for The New York Times (New York Times archives).
Meanings for the Statue of Liberty have changed over time, and each new meaning has tended to obliterate those of earlier generations. A gift from France in 1886, she first served as a monument to political cooperation between France and the United States, promoting international trade and cultural exchange, as well as reinforcing a white European-American identity in contrast to that of non-white peoples around the globe. After the Civil War, she became a monument to the end of slavery in America, “the Abolitionists’ triumphal column”. By the 1920s a very different political meaning for the Statue, as a monument to American national unity amid ethnic diversity, was heavily promoted by the federal government and was forged in the national mobilization during World War I.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s the Statue represented a beacon for immigrants seeking economic opportunity and freedom from persecution around the globe. This majestic meaning of the statue was so widely recognized that President Lyndon B. Johnson chose Liberty Island as the setting for his signing of the 1965 immigration bill, finally abolishing the discriminatory national origins quota system.
Most recently, the September 11, 2001 attack brought into prominence another layer of political meaning for the Statue of Liberty as a public monument, that of the resilience of New York City, and by extension, of humanity, in the face of destruction. The Statue’s survival as a visual reference point in contrast to the devastation across the harbor in lower Manhattan on September 11, and the particular role the Statue played as a temporary refuge in the evacuation on that day, adds to the notion of the Statue as a beacon of international hope and refuge.
If the symbolism of the statue has made her a rallying point for people wanting to express themselves dramatically on some aspect of liberty, she has also become a favorite target for take-over, occupation or even destruction by groups protesting what they perceive as denials of what she represents. Fifteen members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, on the afternoon of December 26, 1971, seized control of the landmark and barricaded themselves inside. On the door they posted a statement addressed to President Richard M. Nixon saying they would evacuate the Statue once he set the date for withdrawing from Vietnam and they flew the United States flag upside down from the statue's crown. Two days later, the veterans withdrew from the Statue in response to a court order. However, they occupied the statue again on June 6, 1976 after the war’s end to draw attention to the wretched treatment of American veterans. This time, National Park Security police arrested and removed them. In 1977, a group of Iranians holed up inside the Statue to protest the Shah’s crimes in Iran, and America’s role in them. Then again that same year, twenty-nine members of the New York Committee to Free the Puerto Rican Nationalist Prisoners captured the Statue and draped a Puerto Rican flag from the crown. The protestors demanded independence for their Caribbean island, an end to discrimination against Puerto Ricans in the United States, and freedom for all of their compatriots in prison. After eight hours, the National Park Police forced their way into the statue to arrest them.
Thus, the Statue of Liberty is admired and criticized, respected and attacked. Her reputation as a beacon of hope, freedom and opportunity is undermined by the political protests of the 1970’s by groups varying in race, ethnicity, class and cause, but all challenging the dominant power structures of the United States to uphold the promises the Statue of Liberty supposedly embodies.
- Andrew Corriente and Emily Font
- Andrew Corriente and Emily Font
Directions and hours: The Statue of Liberty is located on a 12-acre island called Liberty Island. You can get there by going to Battery Park (by subway: 1 train to South Ferry, 4/5 to Bowling Green, R/W to Whitehall) and then taking a ferry ($12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens, $5 for children) to Liberty Island. Current park hours are 8:30am-6:15pm. You must make a reservation to climb to the top of the Pedestal or to the Statue’s Crown.
Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18 (Spring 1996): 7-23.
Glassberg, David. “Rethinking the Statue of Liberty: Old Meanings, New Contexts”. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, Amherst Press, 2003.
"STATUE OF LIBERTY". National Park Service. December 2, 2009