As people took to the streets last weekend to protest President Donald Trump’s controversial order banning the admission of visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, many held signs bearing the words that sit emblazoned on the placard beneath the Statue of Liberty.
Speaking outside of the Supreme Court building on Monday evening, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat House minority leader, recited the most recognizable passage of the epithet: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It was, she said, “a statement of values of our country. It’s a recognition that the strength of our country is in our diversity, that the revitalization constantly of America comes from our immigrant population.”
But while these words may have become synonymous with the American definition of liberty, the author from whose pen they flowed is often overlooked.
When Emma Lazarus, a young, New York poet, was asked in 1883 to write a sonnet to be sold at auction, she could have had little idea that her poem would one day become so significant. The auction was being held to raise money for a base to hold up the Statue of Liberty — a lavish gift from France that few then found particularly inspiring — and Lazarus reluctantly agreed to contribute a sonnet called “The New Colossus,” verbalizing what she imagined the Statue of Liberty might be saying. Her words reflected the focus upon which her life’s writing had been dedicated — anti-Semitism and ethnic prejudice, and her strong advocacy for Jewish refugees fleeing massacre.
When Lazarus died from cancer in 1886 the sonnet still remained largely unrecognized, and it was not until 1903 when a friend found “The New Colossus” in a bookstore that her words were finally inscribed on a plaque that sat on the statue’s base, posthumously memorializing her words within American culture.
Read the full poem at the The Washington Post.