Events and People

Touching Liberty (Literally)

The photographic archives of the Office of the City Representative document decades of visits to Philadelphia by various dignitaries, diplomats, and VIPs, both domestic and foreign. And of course, no visit to Philadelphia would be complete without a stop at one of the iconic symbols of America, the Liberty Bell. As the photos show, being a VIP afforded one special access to the bell.

In October 1963, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia (1930-1974), made an official state visit to the United States to meet with President Kennedy to discuss important and pertinent issues such as U.S. aid to Ethiopia, the effect of Soviet-U.S. relations on Ethiopia and other African nations, and the sticky situation of U.S. arms being sold to Somalia, Ethiopia’s neighbor and sometimes opponent. Before getting down to business with Kennedy in Washington however, Selassie made a stop in Philadelphia. Flying directly from Geneva in a United States Air Force jet, Selassie and his entourage were greeted at Philadelphia International Airport by Mayor James Tate, numerous other city officials, a 21-gun salute, and a “bevy of brass” (the police and firemen’s band) which played both the American and Ethiopian national anthems. The first stop in Philadelphia was of course the Liberty Bell, which at this time was still housed in Independence Hall. This is our first instance of “touching liberty.”

  • Special to The New York Times. “Arms for Somalia Embarrassing U.S. on Eve of Selassie’s Visit: Ethiopian Ruler Is Expected to Raise Issue in Talks With Kennedy This Week.” New York Times (1923-Current file), September 29, 1963, (accessed August 4, 2010).
  • LOU POTTER. “Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah, Roars Into Philadelphia: Met by Mayor Tate and Bevy Of City Brass Winds Up Tour With Honorary Citizenship.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001), October 1, 1963, (accessed August 4, 2010).
  • Special to The New York Times. “Haile Selassie Is Greeted On Arrival in Philadelphia: MUSIC NOTES.” New York Times (1923-Current file), October 1, 1963, (accessed August 4, 2010).

In April 1964, King Hussein of Jordan arrived in the Philadelphia for his third official state visit to the United States and his first official state visit with then President Lyndon B. Johnson. Serving as an “unofficial representative of the Arab world”, King Hussein was set to discuss continued U.S. economic aid to Jordan and the delicate Arab-Israeli political climate. Before that though, King Hussein arrived in Philadelphia aboard Air Force One on a rainy afternoon. The rain however did not deter about 100 spectators, including Mayor Tate and his wife Ann, from greeting the King at the airport. King Hussein’s overnight visit to Philadelphia included trips to all the iconic Philadelphia sites – of course, including the liberty bell. Touching liberty instance number two.

  • HEDRICK SMITH Special to The New York Times. “Hussein Confers With President: HUSSEIN CONFERS WITH PRESIDENT.” New York Times (1923-Current file), April 15, 1964, (accessed August 4, 2010).

In April 1976, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden embarked on a 27-day, 14-state tour of the United States. After spending the first day of his tour in Washington with President Ford, King Carl was driven to the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia (in a Volvo, of course). On hand to meet the King at the museum was Mayor Rizzo, who was reported to have incorrectly addressed the King as “Your Eminence”; one of Rizzo’s aides had to politely remind him that the correct way to address a monarch was “Your Majesty.” In addition to a luncheon in his honor at Philadelphia’s iconic Bellevue Stratford Hotel, King Car also toured Independence Park. Here he touches liberty in the bell’s new pavilion built for the 1976 Bicentennial.

As the official “Bicentennial City”, Philadelphia hosted many dignitaries in 1976. Dr. William R. Tolbert, president of Liberia, and his wife Victoria were invited to the United States as official Bicentennial guests of the U.S. government (the only officially invited head of state from the African continent). This was President Tolbert’s first visit to the United States since taking office as president of Liberia in 1971, having served the 20 years prior as Liberia’s vice-president. Tolbert was descended from a South Carolina slave family who immigrated to Liberia in the 1880s. Arriving first in Washington D.C., Tolbert tackled much more serious tasks, such as addressing a joint session of Congress and the United Nations General Assembly, before coming to Philadelphia to partake of the lighter Bicentennial fare. Here President Tolbert and Mrs. Tolbert get their chance to touch liberty.

Of course, having your own country was not a prerequisite to being afforded special access to the Liberty Bell. Here is Bob Hope (with Mayor Rizzo and fellow entertainer Joel Gray) getting his own touch of liberty during the Freedom Week 1975 ceremonies.