By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
History Of the Bell
According to ushistory.org, “Tradition tells of a chime that change the world on July 8, 1776, with the Liberty Bell ringing out from the tower of Independence Hall summoning the citizens of Philadelphia to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence by Colonel John Nixon. The Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Bell in 1751 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution. It speaks of the rights and freedoms valued by people the world over. Particularly forward thinking were Penn’s ideas on religious freedom, his liberal stance on Native American rights, and his inclusion of citizens in enacting laws. The Liberty Bell gained iconic importance when abolitionists in their efforts to put an end to slavery throughout America adopted it as a symbol. As the Bell was created to commemorate the golden anniversary of Penn’s Charter, the quotation “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” from Leviticus 25:10, was particularly apt. For the line in the Bible immediately preceding “proclaim liberty” is, “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year. The Bell achieved its iconic status when abolitionists adopted the Bell as a symbol for the movement. It was first used in this association as a frontispiece to an 1837 edition of Liberty, published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society. After the divisive Civil War, Americans sought a symbol of unity. The flag became one such symbol, and the Liberty Bell another. To help heal the wounds of the war, the Liberty Bell would travel across the country, travelling to different cities throughout the land “proclaiming liberty” and inspiring the cause of freedom.”
The bell is housed in the Historic District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 6th and Market Street. Coretta Scott King, the wife of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, commissioned the late C. Delores Tucker to see to it that the Liberty Bell was rung every day to officially open the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. Though Ms. Tucker passed away in September of 2005, her husband, William Tucker, has seen to it that the tradition continues. Every year, some prominent person is selected to symbolically ring the bell.
I n 2010, exoneree James Bain was selected to ring the bell. This past December, Bain was proven innocent after serving 35 years in prison for rape, which at present is the longest known period of time ever served wrongfully. His conviction was caused by misidentification.
When Bain was released, Mr. Tucker saw it on CNN and took note of Bain’s answer to how he kept going. One reason was his belief in God he said, and the other was the memory of Dr. King and his teachings. In a press release, Bain said “the memory of Dr. King and his teachings helped me through each and every day of my 35-year wrongful incarceration. Now, thanks to DNA testing, I am free and so pleased and honored to be the 2010 National Honorary Bell Ringer for the ‘Let Freedom Ring’ ceremony in Philadelphia.” Bain’s statements had prompted Mr. Tucker to select him to ring the Freedom Bell this year. A lot of print, radio, and television media came to the event, and Mr. Bain gave many interviews.
After the ceremony, a luncheon was held at the Sheraton Hotel. The luncheon is the sole fundraising event for the Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr., Association for Non-Violence, Inc. every year. The funds are used for operating the College for Teens Program and several other programs, including the Annual Christmas Party for foster children, homeless children and low-income children. The College for Teens program mentors high school students who have aspirations for going to college, helps prepare them for the PSAT and SAT placement tests, and places them on a college campus for up to 6-8 weeks in the summer.
Various speakers spoke about Dr. King. Mr. Bain was honored there as well, and he shared a few words. He mentioned that he would tell other cities of his experience at the event, and that the people in attendance would hear from him, meaning about his works.
Seth Miller, the executive director of the Florida Innocence Project, was recognized several times by the Master of Ceremonies William Tucker, for their role in helping to exonerate Bain. In his press release, Miller said, “For 35 years of wrongful incarceration, Jamie exhibited the strength and perseverance that is the embodiment of the struggle for liberty which was central to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mission. It is fitting that he has been chosen to ring the Liberty Bell to honor Dr. King’s legacy.”
Also honored and presented with an award was Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld. Neufeld said that the quest to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and helping to try to change laws to prevent wrongful convictions was “the new civil rights movement.” U.S. Senators Arlen Specter and Bob Casey were in attendance as well.
While at the bell ringing ceremony, I was totally caught up in the moment, aware that I was witnessing something historical. There was the electricity in the air, the buzzing of many people in attendance, and the excessive amount of media present.
As I walked down the hall, I could hear small snippets of conversation regarding Mr. Bain’s story and his selection. While viewing the bell, I thought about the historical relic which had survived the long-since deceased people who had crafted the bell, and whose hands through which it had passed throughout history to survive until today. Then as I saw Mr. Bain symbolically ring the bell, the surrealness of the moment struck me.
Two months ago, Mr. Bain was still incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. I thought about what a miracle it was that he had survived that and had not lost his mind. I thought about how someone having the pleasure of participating in the celebration of a now-deceased hero was extraordinary, and about how Mr. Bain could never have anticipated this moment, even when dreaming of freedom.
I thought about what a symbolic moment it was for all exonerees that one of their own was selected. I thought about the level of awareness raising that would get accomplished through the publicizing of this event. I was painfully aware of how small my wrongful imprisonment of 16 years was compared to his 35 years. I thought about how surreal it was that I was even standing there myself—that I was free, that I was able to travel as I wanted, and that I had chosen to do so and was standing there in Philadelphia, and that I was now a columnist and reporter as a natural extension of my advocacy work.
I realized even further that no one is able to fully anticipate all of the twists and turns their life might take. Prior to leaving, I had a chance to speak with Mr. Bain, express my happiness at his exoneration, and talk to his family.
“Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.