“The Nation We Build Together”: Smithsonian enshrines CIW’s Lady Liberty on permanent display in new exhibit at American History Museum in Washington, DC!

Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. David Skorton: “These national treasures inspire, challenge, and celebrate our national history”…

Unity Square Project Director, Megan Smith: New exhibit designed to inspire future leaders by highlighting stories of those “who have participated in our democracy and changed America and even changed the world.”

It was a remarkable day, even measured against the standard of the CIW’s often dizzying history.

Marchers carrying the CIW’s Lady Liberty statue arrive at the offices of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association in Orlando at the end of the March for Dignity, Dialogue, and a Fair Wage on March 4, 2000.

On Wednesday, June 28th, far from the dusty streets where Immokalee’s farmworkers launched their struggle for fundamental human rights nearly 25 years ago, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., placed the CIW’s Lady Liberty statue — all twelve feet of her, from the hem of her skirt to the tip of the bright red tomato in her outstretched hand — on permanent display.  The statue, once carried across the state of Florida on the shoulders of farmworkers as part of a 235-mile march for “Dignity, Dialogue, and a Fair Wage” (right), is now part of a striking new exhibit entitled “The Nation We Build Together,” a collection of distinctly American protest art, cultural objects, and political memorabilia that has been seven years in the making.

And so as of this week, the CIW’s statue has a new home in the nation’s capital, and it will remain standing in that new home — representing the struggles, hopes, and contributions of farmworkers and immigrant laborers across the country — for years to come, a permanent beacon of humanity amidst the shifting values of its new hometown.

The CIW’s Laura Germino, right, Director of the CIW’s Anti-Slavery Program, stands with Dr. Barbara Clark Smith, Curator with the Smithsonian’s Division of Political History, before Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony officially opened the new exhibit to the public.

The exhibition’s grand opening was a memorable event, not just for the CIW representatives in attendance that day, but for the thousands of people who were fortunate enough to be part of the unveiling of a deeply thoughtful and provocative collection, an assemblage of everything from the desk Thomas Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to the Woolworth’s department store lunch counter where, nearly two hundred years later, black college students organized a peaceful sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., and demanded that the promise made in that Declaration — that “all men are created equal… [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” — be made real. 

We have a few photos from the opening to share the excitement of a moment nearly twenty years in coming.

Photo Report: An unforgettable day…

The day began with a long line of eager museum goers queuing up outside the building under a massive banner featuring what has become, amazingly enough, a signature image of the new exhibit:

Once inside, the crowds could read, in six-inch letters, the unifying theme of the collection on the wall leading into the second floor galleries where it is housed:

Participants in the opening ceremony were not only treated to the sounds of the Marine Corps Jazz Band (below on the far left, in red), but were given souvenir Statue of Liberty crowns (there’s that signature image again!) to commemorate the day, which many promptly placed on their heads for the remainder of their visit.  The weight of the occasion brought out both the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Mr. John Gray, pictured here below addressing the crowd ahead of the ribbon-cutting, and the Secretary of the Smithsonian itself, Dr. David Skorton, only the 13th Secretary in the celebrated institution’s history.  His words placed the stunning new exhibit in its proper historical context, and singled out a handful of images for special mention as he took the crowd on a brief tour of the nation’s history on display.  Following the picture we have provided an excerpt of his opening remarks:

The Nation We Build Together answers our country’s fundamental question: What Kind of a Nation Do We Want to Be?…

George Washington, to my right, beckons the American people and our millions of visitors to our new wing.  And look at General Washington’s outstretched arm to see the answer to that very question when — at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War — he resigned his commission and returned his sword — and the power it represents — to the people…

… Then in 1960, four African-American college students asked What Kind of a Nation Do We Want to Be? as they sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Powerfully installed in our new Unity Square, the Greensboro Lunch Counter is an emotional and vivid representation of our ongoing quest to fulfill the promise of American democracy.

In 2000, a bright green, papier mache sculpture of the Statue of Liberty holding a tomato in her right hand was carried by farmworkers and activists of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who marched across Florida to advocate for better conditions.  This powerful interpretation of the Statue of Liberty in Many Voices, One Nation asks this question through the lens of the many communities that have forged our nation…

… These national treasures, and many others, inspire, challenge, and celebrate our shared history.

Finally it was time for the ribbon-cutting itself…

… opening the new exhibit once and for all to the American people…

… where the CIW’s Lady Liberty awaited the crowds in her very own glass display…

… her tomato held high above her head, celebrating the workers’ demand for fundamental human rights in our country’s fields…

… and her story told in a plaque at her feet…

… a story that will now be read and pondered by millions of museum goers…

… young and old…

… from all corners of the nation, long after those of us reading this post today are gone.

The report wouldn’t be complete without a sense of the fun that marked the spirit of the opening ceremonies (complete with museum guides dressed in Lady Liberty gowns and crowns!)…

… and of the challenges that remain as we, one people, continue to wrestle with the fundamental question of the American experiment posed in Dr. Skorton’s opening remarks: What Kind of Nation Do We Want to Be?  The final gallery in the new exhibit, entitled Unity Square, houses the iconic Woolworth’s Lunch Counter and places museum goers, through a remarkable interactive theater, in both the position of those brave young college students and in that of those young men pictured below — many of them still with us and in positions of power in their 70s and 80s today — who harassed, spat on, and beat civil rights activists in the 1960s in their own, now-discredited, answer to our country’s eternal question.

As the final images of this extraordinary new exhibit remind us — and as the continuing Campaign for Fair Food in the streets outside the museum’s walls powerfully underscores today — the history of this country is the ever-unfolding story of our collective efforts to realize its founding call to freedom.  The tension between the beautiful promise of equality in our founders’ words, on the one hand, and the all-too-often harsh reality of fear and repression in our current lives, on the other, has driven the American narrative for centuries.  And that same tension animates this powerful new exhibit — with the CIW’s Lady Liberty squarely at its heart.  It is an exhibit that every Fair Food activist should make a point to visit on their next trip to the nation’s capital. 

We will give the last word in this report to the Smithsonian’s Megan Smith, Project Director of the Unity Square section of the exhibit, from an excellent preview of the new collection in the Washington Post:

“This space is really about being inspired by people in the past who have participated in our democracy and changed America and even changed the world,” Smith says. “We hope this is where people will take what they have learned on the entire floor and reflect on their place in shaping America’s future.”

[For much more on this exhibit, you can find its accompanying book, entitled “Many Voices, One Nation: Material Culture Reflections on Race and Migration in the United States,” and written by Margaret Salazar-Porzio, Joan Troyano, Lauren Safranek, here.]

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