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From the Liberty Bell to MLK's 'Let Freedom Ring'

From the Liberty Bell to MLK's 'Let Freedom Ring'

Dr. Gordon Boronow is a professor at Nyack College.

When I was a boy I became a stamp collector. I kept collecting stamps until, frankly, the United States Postal Service cheapened the experience by commemorating one triviality after another. But I still enjoy the collection, and reading about the people and events that are being celebrated in stamps.

One of my favorite stamps as a boy was the 1960 10 cent Liberty Bell Air Mail stamp. It was colorful with a tasteful design. Being an air mail stamp made it slightly exotic to a young boy.

The Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of freedom. It was originally cast by order of the Assembly of Pennsylvania to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Charter of Privileges, issued by Govenor William Penn in 1701. The Charter of Privileges, the first constitution for Pennsylvania, affirmed freedom for Protestants of all denominations and for Catholics too, living in Penn's Quaker colony.

The Bell was ordered to be cast with the following inscription, taken from Leviticus 25:10: "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof".

This Biblical inscription, taken from the story when God established the Year of Jubilee, commemorated the Jubilee of freedom in Pennsylvania. The inscription on the bell captured the essential ideal of the Declaration of Independence which had been debated, hammered out and approved by the Congressional Congress meeting beneath its bell tower.

In 1776 the world was introduced to a new country, The United States of America, Proclaiming Liberty … unto all inhabitants thereof. In 1976, the Postal Service issued another stamp commemorating the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence with the Liberty Bell and highlighted the message of the Biblical inscription.

Except that in 1776 not all the inhabitants in the land were free. Many were enslaved. The blatant contradiction between the ideal of proclaiming liberty and the fact of slavery could not endure. Abolitionists adopted the bell as a symbol for their movement to rid the nation of slavery.

William Lloyd Garrison's publication, The Liberator, was the first documented publication to use the name Liberty Bell for what had been known simply as the State House bell. The Liberty Bell made a powerful anti-slavery symbol, with its inscription of God's call for Jubilee and liberty. Christian America could not deny the obvious contradiction.

After the Civil War, which in fact secured liberty for all inhabitants, the Liberty Bell continued to serve the cause of Liberty. The bell travelled throughout the country to help heal the wounds of war. Jefferson Davis, President of the former Confederacy, came to the bell, that symbol of abolitionists, in 1885 to pay homage to the bell and urge the people to national unity.

A variation of the Liberty Bell known as the Justice Bell was created to be a symbol of the women's suffragate movement. The Justice Bell was first rung on the day the 19th Amendment was ratified, extending the right to vote to women.

The work of this symbol of Liberty, God's plan for mankind, was not done. In the design of the 1960 Liberty Bell Air Mail stamp are the words "Let Freedom Ring". These words are a line from the patriotic song, My Country 'Tis of Thee. 

It is fitting these words should be on the Liberty Bell stamp. The Liberty Bell was created to Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants thereof. I like to think that my favorite postage stamp perhaps inspired Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was preparing to give his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

"Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

– Martin Luther King Jr., excerpt from his "I Have a Dream" speech

After the terrible murders of policemen doing their duty last week, I have been reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his vision for America. If we are ever to get there, we will need God's grace, and government with fewer mandates and much more Liberty and Justice for all.

Dr. Gordon Boronow is a professor at Nyack College.