In the days leading up to election on November 3, 2020, I happened to recall my one and only visit to the Statue of Liberty. This was a long time ago – probably in the late 70s – so my memories are dreamlike. I caught the ferry from Battery Park. We were a happy, smiling crowd, me and my ferry mates. At least as I recall.
It was thrilling seeing her from afar in New York Harbor then watching her grow larger as we drew nearer. The commanding woman with the torch of liberty uplifted in her right hand standing on a small island.
Ellis Island opened as an immigration point of entry in 1892, six years after the statue was completed. Our Mother of Freedom stood guard over more than 12 million people who immigrated to America by way of Ellis Island.
What I remember most vividly of all my dreamlike memories were her sandal-clad feet sticking out from under her robes. They were enormous. The bulbous toes were like roots digging into the soil, the soul, of my country. Those feet meant to me that she was immovable.
I almost always have my binoculars at hand, first for birds and then for everything else I want to see up close. Binoculars are especially useful for looking at architectural details on tall buildings and structures.
I cannot prove I had them with me that day, but I must have. There would have been gulls and other birds to see flying around New York Harbor, and without binoculars I would not have been able to see so clearly and remember so well her feet. The Statue of Liberty stands on a foundation and pedestal that are a combined 154 feet in height – half the length of a football field. I will wager that most visitors to the State of Liberty never notice her feet. Neither do they see what I also failed to see, or do not remember seeing, that day with my binoculars – the broken shackle and chain that coils at her right foot and reemerges under her garment at her left.
The French government gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States in the years following our Civil War to celebrate the abolition of slavery and advance the universal ideas of democracy, freedom, and justice.
It took almost three decades of back and forth for France’s gift to become the indomitable statue she is. One item of contention was the shackle and chains. The sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi had originally placed the broken chains in her left hand, but he acquiesced to vociferous complaints from certain factions in America. Instead, Bartholdi placed a tablet in her hand with the Roman numerals for the date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. He did not back down completely. He left the shackle and broken chain at her feet.
Historian and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1940 autobiography noted that the hope the Statue of Liberty conveyed to immigrants did not pertain to his race. And those millions of immigrants she watched over – they have not always been greeted with open arms and equal opportunities.
The Statue of Liberty is officially known as Liberty Enlightening the World. She was dedicated on October 28, 1886, a week or so before Americans go to the polls every four years to elect a president.
One hundred and thirty-four years, almost to the day, have gone by since her dedication. The Statue of Liberty is unshackled. She is free to move on but she has planted her feet. The task of moving forward is ours.