How can Symbols advance our cause?

500+ Symbol Stories in the News

Curated by Cosmorock

Symbols are all around us—in flags, street names, statues, money, images, objects, and acts. They are not there by accident. Someone put them there to change our point of view, misinform, create fear and oppression, recruit and rally supporters, or evoke hope and courage.

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Debbie Millman: How symbols and brands shape our humanity. Now the most important brands are the ones being pushed up by the people.

The public symbols of the Confederacy in the United States, disturbing reminders that Jim Crow is still alive and well today. The Southern Poverty Law Center has mapped 1,740 of them scattered across the nation, but mostly in the South.


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Two views on the Tubman 20

Journey of the Harriet Tubman Twenty

Even though a coin is small, it’s a public space, and the words, images and symbols on it belong to all of us. When we pass a few pennies to a cashier, we’re probably not thinking about his presidency, but the Lincoln icon and the values of freedom and equality for all that he stood for are unconsciously reinforced. Sometimes, though, we’re reinforcing the wrong values. Every time we spend a twenty-dollar bill we see Andrew Jackson, with his large forehead and long wavy hair. He is embraced today by the White far right as a populist hero. President Jackson is known for his key role in a White land grab when he signed the Indian Removal Act that forced Native Americans to leave their ancestral lands in the South and march to current day Oklahoma. In what became known as the Trail of Tears, exposure to the elements, extortion, violence, disease, and starvation caused the deaths of thousands. Cherokees named him “Indian Killer.” He was also known for harsh treatment of his own slaves and fought to expand slavery in the west. While Jackson’s image takes up a small public space, it’s one that’s visited by millions every day.

Over the years, many have wanted to replace his image on the 20—this time with a woman. In 2014, business owner Barbara Ortiz Howard and journalist Susan Ades Stone formed a nonprofit group called Women on 20s, or W20. Their hope was to have a woman on the bill by the year 2020, the centennial of the 19th Amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote. Says the W20:

Equality may be legislated, but our culture must embrace it in every way for it to become a reality and erase the lines that have been drawn between us. Women On 20s is one small way to join Americans in a big cultural hug and acknowledge that symbols matter—especially the pictures we put on our money. When we have a woman on our bills, we will connect women to their value throughout history, literally validating their abilities and potential through the millions of bills passing from hand-to-hand every day.

The group’s initial list of two hundred candidates was winnowed down in several rounds, and in 2015, they asked people to pick one woman from a field of fifteen. The process was designed to encourage a national conversation—from coffee shops and dinner tables to the national media—about which woman was best for the bill. More than 600,000 people voted and Harriet Tubman emerged as the winner. Over the next year W20 increased public support to convince the Treasury Department to, as their website says, “Replace a slave trader with a freed slave and freedom fighter.”

And after its own deliberations in 2016, the Obama administration announced that Harriet Tubman, a former slave who became a conductor on the underground railroad as well as an activist who fought for women’s right to vote, would be the first African American woman on paper currency. Unfortunately, during the four years that Andrew Jackson’s portrait hung prominently in Donald Trump’s oval office, that president opposed this idea and his treasury secretary stalled the project. The Biden administration has since rebooted it.

An Atlas of Symbols

Geographical Features

Ironically, 26 of the U.S. states are named for First Peoples (the same lands from which Native Americans were mostly removed). One of those is Alaska, which is Aleut for mainland. For thousands of years in that land, the First Peoples called North America’s highest mountain Denali, meaning “the high one.” In 1917, it was renamed Mt. McKinley after President William McKinley, who had nothing to do with Alaska. In 2015, it once again became Mt. Denali.


Across the US, buildings named for racists are coming under fire, including college dorms  named for slaveholders and white supremacists. In 2015, student protests led the University of North Carolina to redub “Saunders Hall” as “Carolina Hall.” In 1920, the classroom building had been named for William Saunders, a former Confederate colonel and head of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. The students had urged the trustees to rename the building “Hurston Hall” after the Black writer Zora Neale Hurston. In our nation’s capital, efforts are stalled in renaming Washington DC’s U.S. Russell Senate Office Building. Richard Russell, Jr. was a Georgia governor, senator—and a White supremacist. 

To the victor go the spoils, and that includes symbols. Spanish general and dictator Francisco Franco was a nationalist who, aided by Hitler, rose to power in 1939. As many as half a million people died in the Spanish Civil War, and after it ended tens of thousands of Franco’s enemies were imprisoned or executed. During his decades-long dictatorship, squares and streets across Spain were renamed for nationalist generals. Now most of Franco’s supporters are gone, and a 2007 “historical memory” law called for replacing the symbols of their rule. Dozens of streets in Madrid alone are reverting to their pre-Franco era names or are being named after prominent women and others who resisted the brutal regime. So General Millan Astray Street, named for a ruthless nationalist officer, was changed to Teacher Justa Freire Street, after a well-known and beloved teacher. Imagine the difference this makes to a child growing up on that street.

 Some researchers at Mapbox analyzed seven major cities worldwide and (after eliminating the gender-neutral names) found that only 28 percent were named for women. The findings of this form of sexism came as no surprise. In the Netherlands, an estimated 88 percent of streets are named for men.


Places also change their names depending on who’s in favor. For example, the Russian city of St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great. In 1914, at the outset of World War I, the Tsar felt the name sounded too German so it was renamed Petrograd. When revolutionary politician Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, the city became Leningrad. As the Soviet Union broke up, many other cities switched back to pre-Communist names, and in 1991, the Leningrad citizens voted to go back to St. Petersburg. Each change reflected the rule of the day.

How can we use symbols?

From street-name changes to honor diversity and inclusion, to tens of thousands of women marching in knitted pink hats for women’s rights, to White House lights colored in the form of a rainbow to celebrate the Supreme Court’s making same sex marriage the law of the land, we live in an age of symbols. Whether we put them to good use is up to us.