Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Bob Morrison.
Comedian Chris Rock has stoked the flames of controversy with this Fourth of July tweet. The Hollywood comic wrote: "Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks." Rock's tweet sparked plenty of day-after fireworks. What he wrote went beyond the pale, responded many online, hurt and enraged at Rock's bitter humor.
Chris Rock's tweet was beyond the pale. It was doubtless his effort to capitalize on the 160th anniversary of that great Fifth of July speech delivered by black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass addressed a huge audience in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852 on the theme: "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
Douglass' eloquent appeal was filled with "Rocky" barbs. Like this one: "I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!" Within the pale was not a phrase lost on his mostly pale listeners. They may have laughed at the double entendre, but not for long.
Frederick turned his withering scorn on the very idea of a celebration of liberty in the midst of so much bondage and misery. "The blessings in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. To drag a man in fetters...to join you in joyous anthems [is] inhuman mockery...This Fourth of July is yours, not mine...You may rejoice, I must mourn."
It was one of the most powerful speeches ever delivered in America. And Frederick Douglass used the Fourth of July to educate and illuminate the controversy over slavery in America. So, yes, Chris Rock, you were right to use the Fourth of July and a bitter humor to prick our consciences on Independence Day. We do not want the deeper meaning of this important day to grow as stale as left-over potato salad. We need this day to remind us of our nation's commitment to an ideal of life and liberty. The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.
Abraham Lincoln spoke to America in the 1850s, too. He, too, jarred our consciences. Lincoln had to deal with Supreme Court rulings adverse to liberty and antithetical to the nation's founding ideals. Lincoln spoke to mostly pale audiences when he described the plight of the black man.
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