Sunday, July 1, 2012

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor. Not!

The Statue of Liberty, who lifts her lamp beside the Golden Door, aka the New York City Harbor, is famous world-wide as symbol of Freedom and of the United States itself. The statue, a gift to the US from the people of France, has stood on Liberty Island, just a short distance from Ellis Island, since its dedication in October of 1886.  Lady Liberty was introduced with great fanfare, including a parade and speeches by dignitaries, including President Cleveland. Some estimates put the size of the crowd assembled around the harbor at nearly one million.

A bronze plaque bearing the lines of Emma Lazarus's 1883 sonnet, "The New Colossus," was mounted inside the lower level of the statue in 1903.
However, not everybody was participating in the jubilation surrounding the dedication of this icon of Libertas, the Roman Goddess of freedom.  An op-ed piece in the Cleveland-Gazette, an African-American newspaper, blasted away at the government's failure to support the civil liberties of black citizens:

"Liberty enlightening the world," indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the "liberty" of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.
Eastern European immigrants arriving in New York Harbor.
On the other hand, for very different reasons than the Gazette gave, the US government had already begun regulating who could enter the US.  In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislation to prohibit free entry to a particular group. (The act was renewed in 1892 and 1902).  The motivation for this act was spawned by the large influx of Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855)   After the Civil War the building of the Transcontinental Railroads brought another flood of Chinese immigration to provide more cheap labor.  By the 1880s the Chinese in California were being blamed for a number of problems, most notably for unemployment among whites.

This Act was the first in the series of moves designed to control the admission and freedoms given new immigrants. For example, in 1887 Henry F.Bowers founded the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic group. Its aim was to "protect" white Midwesterners from the latest immigrant groups from Southern and Eastern Europe.  The fear and prejudice directed at these groups was well illustrated in 1891 by the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants (who had just been acquitted of a murder charge) by several upstanding citizens in New Orleans.

On January 1, 1892, the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened in New York harbor to accommodate the masses of immigrants pouring into the U.S. from Europe. (The peak year 1907 saw more than one million arrivals pass through its doors.) During the period 1880-1930 immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy outnumbered the immigrants from Anglophone countries more than 3 to 1. Some of these new immigrants (including my grandfather, Anton Katilius, from Lithuania)  found their way to Homestead.  
A boatload of a number of the "huddled masses" headed for Ellis Island.
 At the time of the Strike, Slovak workers constituted a large portion of the unskilled workforce in the Works.  Although they initially supported the skilled workers of the Amalgamated Association in the strike, by its conclusion in November, many of the Eastern European workers returned to their low-wage jobs. while the AA members and higher-paid workers were shut out by the company.

As in every industry from railroad building to steelmaking to mining, although initially these immigrants were welcomed--and often offered incentives--by the companies they worked for, inevitably the two forces would come to blows.  As the newer immigrants assimilated, they became ambitious for better pay and working conditions, and so began organizing.  The companies would crush them or shut them out, starting a new turn in the endless cycle in  American industry's quest for cheap labor.
A newly-arrived immigrant family gazes at Lady Liberty from Ellis Island.
The period of great European immigration saw continued strife between older immigrant groups and new arrivals.  If any in the former group couldn't find work, they would blame the recent immigrants for taking their jobs.  Each immigrant group has tried to slam shut the Golden Door behind them as they passed through--as of course is continuing today in the numerous efforts to control and.choke off immigration from Latin American countries.  Latino workers are the most recent in a long line of immigrant groups exploited in low-wage jobs, then vilified when they try to break into better-paying ones.

As the strikers at the Homestead Works found out in 1892, economic hard times significantly reduce the power of the workers: The number of workers exceeds the number of available jobs. Companies argue that they need concessions by the workers to keep afloat.  The wealthiest have control not only over the nation's workers, but over legislatures, courts, banks, and police. The rich get richer while all the rest get poorer.

As I showed in a previous blog post, the economic situation today in the US eerily parallels the  conditions following the Panic of 1893, with similar causes and results. Let me therefore conclude with one of the many charts available on the Net showing the gross inequality in distribution of wealth in the US today:
 Who's responsible for this shocking disparity between the Rich and the Rest of Us?  Believe me, it ain't the Mexicans.

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