Emma Lazarus' "Give us your tired, your poor" in the modern world
The year was 1883, when Emma Lazarus, a young New York poet and the descendant of Jewish immigrants, was asked for a favor.
Fundraising efforts were underway for a pedestal to hold the Statue of Liberty, an expensive gift from France that many Americans found especially uninspiring. The French had paid for construction of the monument, but the Americans were responsible for buying its base. This made out-of-towners scoff.
But elite writers and authors in New York went to work anyway, soliciting help from people like the 34-year-old Lazarus to raise money. Would she compose, they asked, a sonnet to be sold at auction, alongside the writings of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman?
A Nation With Open Arms
What she didn't know at the time was that it would be her words, lyrical and moving, that decades later came to define the American vision of liberty.
More than a century later, in 2017, the words are rallying people against a controversial president and his policies toward immigrants.
Though raised in privilege, Lazarus had spent her life writing about anti-Semitism and ethnic prejudice, and in the 1880s, became a fierce advocate for Jewish refugees fleeing massacre in Russia. Her sonnet, called "The New Colossus," reflected that conviction.
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," she imagined the Statue of Liberty saying, "yearning to breathe free."
At the time, her words were praised by other writers, who said they gave the cold and disconnected statue a spirited purpose. But the sonnet (and its author) went unrecognized during the ceremony to dedicate Lady Liberty in 1886. When Lazarus died a year later from cancer at age 38, it was not mentioned in her New York Times obituary, either.
It wasn't until 1903 that the poet's stirring words were inscribed on a plaque and attached to the statue's pedestal.
Words Become Weapons
In the century since, the final stanzas of "The New Colossus" have been quoted by presidents. But the words have also been weaponized against presidents — much like protesters did nationwide in recent weeks to protest President Donald Trump.
Last Friday, Trump signed an executive order that blocks people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The executive order temporarily bans refugees from entering as well. This created chaos at airports worldwide and sparked a weekend of widespread protests.
Those opposing the Trump administration's immigration and refugee policies have made Lazarus' most famous words their rallying cry. The poetic lines are proof, they say, that American liberty means welcoming those in need, not shunning them.
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said outside the Supreme Court Monday night. "You know the rest. It's 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."
The stanza Pelosi quoted is the most widely-recognized element of "The New Colossus," likely because it's the part that appears on a placard at the Statue of Liberty. But the entire poem is much longer, and speaks to the work Lazarus did to welcome refugees in the 1880s.
Emma Lazarus' Contributions To Immigrants
Lazarus grew up in a wealthy New York family that descended from America's first Jewish settlers, according to the Jewish Women's Archive (JWA). Her father funded the publication of her first book of poems when she was just 17.
Much of her writing explored her background as a Jew of Sephardic — or Spanish and Portuguese — descent. She was proud of that history, but her father tried to distance his family from it and blend into wealthy Christian society, giving Lazarus a distinct feeling of otherness.
It was a wave of "particularly vicious" anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe in the 1880s that inspired her most powerful work, wrote the JWA. "Pogroms," a Russian word that means to "demolish violently," were driving as many as 2,000 Russian Jewish refugees to New York monthly, Esther Schor wrote. Schor is the author of a biography about Emma Lazarus.
In an annotated version of "The New Colossus," Schor explained that Lazarus plunged "recklessly and impulsively" into a written defense of the Russian Jewish immigrants in Century Magazine. The poet also began volunteering.
"She took the streetcar from her lavish home on 57th Street to work at the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society at 105 East Broadway, where she helped train refugees," Schor wrote. Lazarus also taught English and wrote an exposé about the refugees' poor living conditions.
It was during this time, according to the JWA, that Lazarus "became increasingly convinced that 'the time has come for actions rather than words.'" And, aware of her own privilege, she would sometimes joke: "What would my society friends say if they saw me here?"
In 1883, she formed the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews, but it later collapsed in 1884. A year after Lazarus died, her cousin founded the Emma Lazarus Club for Working Girls. It served as a place "where young Jewish immigrants could learn to type or sew — or recite Shakespeare," Schor wrote.
In the decades since, Lazarus' works have been passionately resurrected — thanks, Schor argues, to the towering presence of the Statue of Liberty.
"The irony is that the statue goes on speaking, even when the tide turns against immigration — even against immigrants themselves, as they adjust to their American lives," Schor said in 2011. "You can't think of the statue without hearing the words Emma Lazarus gave her."