I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.
Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps) by Alonso Javier Torres, on Flickr (cc)
He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?
On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial
The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.
Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.
Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."
Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.
On the Steps of Aztec Temples
Templo mayor ruins by Antoine Hubert, on Flickr (cc)
Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).
At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.
That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.
On the Steps of the Theatre of Pompey
Largo di Torre Argentina by Rodney, on Flickr (cc)
Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.
This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).
Other noteworthy events
- On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
- On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
- On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.
I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.