The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was no stranger to Philadelphia. Perhaps his most significant visit was on Feb. 1, 1959, when he posed for a Liberty Bell photo during a tour of Independence Hall. It was likely the most traditional of pictures in the era before the Rocky statue. But this was no routine snapshot.
It was a moment rich in symbolism, a reminder that the Civil Rights Movement was an important next segment of the long, often uneven, path toward justice and equality that Independence National Historical Park embodies.
The bell was cast in 1753, long before there were thoughts of revolution or independence, yet prophetically declaring, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants Thereof.”
It’s unclear if the Old State House Bell was actually rung on July 4, 1776, but it was in the steeple on that day and when the U.S. Constitution was drafted there 11 years later. And when George Washington signed the nation’s first Fugitive Slave Law in Philadelphia in 1793. (From just blocks away, fellow founder Ben Franklin had asked Congress to abolish slavery three years before. The House tabled the motion, claiming no authority on the matter.)
Washington would have use of the law he signed. Oney Judge, one of nine slaves he brought to Philadelphia, fled from what is now the President’s House Site at Sixth and Market on May 21, 1796. Though she remained free, under the law she was technically a fugitive slave until her death in 1848. It is her footsteps, memorialized in bronze, that lead away from the house today.
Four years before she died, in August 1844, on the south side of Independence Hall, another fugitive slave, Frederick Douglass, decried the stark contrasts between the nation’s high ideals and its harsh realities. The Pennsylvania Freeman reported:
“The stand which Douglass occupied was close by the old Hall in which the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and he made one or two allusions to this circumstance with thrilling effect.” The audience, the abolitionist newspaper said, “could scarcely believe him when he said that he was still a slave, and liable at any moment, under the constitution and laws of the country, to be sent back to hopeless bondage.”
Shortly after Frederick Douglass’ visit, the Liberty Bell was moved to the Assembly Room, where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were declared self-evident truths. People would pass it in the early 1850s on their way upstairs for trials of fugitive slaves.
By then the old cracked bell and its famous proclamation had been adopted by the abolitionist movement and rechristened the Liberty Bell. Shortly after Douglass’ visit, it was moved to the Assembly Room, where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were declared self-evident truths. People would pass it in the early 1850s on their way upstairs for trials of fugitive slaves. After the Compromise of 1850, the law Washington had signed had been strengthened. It was now the duty of all citizens to assist in the enforcement of these statutes.
In 1861, enroute to his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln came to Independence Hall and spoke of the “deep emotion” this hallowed ground evoked. In his brief remarks, he said:
“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. … I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.
“Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle — I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”
He returned in 1865, to lie in state in the Assembly Room, the Liberty Bell close at hand and portraits of the founders hanging from the walls. More than 100,000 people filed through to pay their respects.
Almost a century later, Dr. King took his rightful place beside the bell, dreaming of a nation that lived up to its founders’ promises and Lincoln’s hope.
Kevin Ferris is a co-founder of Broad + Liberty and co-author of “Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal.”
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