Michael Jackson’s adult career was sabotaged whilst at its absolute zenith. Jackson, himself, believed that he was the latest victim of a racist system that had claimed numerous black luminaries before him.
In a radio interview with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, conducted in the midst of his 2005 trial, Jackson named some of his fellow ‘black luminaries’ – Jack Johnson, Nelson Mandela, Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. By doing so Jackson put himself into historical context with unerring accuracy.
“I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted.” Charlie Chaplin, after being investigated under the Mann Act in 1944
The World’s Greatest
Black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson had long been the victim of a ‘color-line’ adopted by numerous white champions who refused to fight him because of his race. By refusing to defend his title against Johnson, Jim Jeffries had remained world champion while Johnson sat sidelined for no other reason than the color of his skin.
Tommy Burns would later go on to become world champion and told reporters that ‘all coons are yellow’ while only fighting white challengers. Burns didn’t explicitly draw the ‘color-line’ but did claim that he would only fight Johnson for the astronomical fee of $30,000. It took two years for the fight between Johnson and the champion Tommy Burns to be made.
When the fight eventually did take place, footage of Jack Johnson winning the heavyweight championship of the world (and by doing so becoming the first black man to become heavyweight champion) was edited by authorities for fear of offending white sensibilities. As the fight drew to a close, with Johnson on the verge of knocking Burns out, police stepped into the ring to stop the fight and ordered the cameras to stop grinding.
The image of a black man beating a white fighter was considered so damaging to the international, white psyche that the footage of the ending of the fight was outlawed.
Michael Jackson would also go on to become a victim of an unspoken ‘color-line’ within the music industry.
After Jackson’s Off The Wall had become the biggest selling album ever recorded by a black artist – outselling efforts by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and every other black artist in history – Jackson found himself sidelined by much of the mainstream entertainment industry and media.
The Grammy awards panel of 1980 gave Jackson a solitary nomination and that in the ‘RnB’ (i.e. ‘black’) category.
Rolling Stone magazine refused to feature him on the front cover of their magazine and MTV initially refused to show the video for Billie Jean (from the follow-up album to Off The Wall, 1982’s Thriller) on the basis that MTV was a ‘rock channel’. Interestingly, however, the 49th video ever played on MTV was the rap track Rapture by Blondie.
The message being that if you were white and wanted to rap then MTV was your home. But if you were black and wanted to rap (or in Jackson’s case, sing) then MTV was a ‘rock channel’.
When eventually given the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, Jack Johnson would prove to be a supreme champion.
When eventually given the opportunity, after a series of negotiations, to have his short films played on MTV, Michael Jackson would set the standards by which all other artists and entertainers would be measured.
“What’s My Name?” Muhammad Ali
Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson would all have to suffer the indignity of being referred to by malicious nicknames in the press and media. The result of which was to belittle them rather than elevate and celebrate them.
Where white acts would be referred to as ‘The King’ (Elvis Presley) or ‘The Boss’ (Bruce Springsteen), Michael Jackson would be reduced to ‘Wacko Jacko’. Even when Jackson asked for the media to stop calling him ‘Jacko’ (‘My name is Jackson’), his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Jackson was aware that a malicious nickname was part of the ‘pattern’ that he and other black luminaries would have to suffer.
Jack Johnson was rarely afforded the respect of having his name elevated in the media. The press, at the turn of the century, would refer to him variously as ‘the coon’, ‘the negro’ or just ‘bad bad Mistah Johnsing’. Whereas his white counterparts, such as Jim Jeffries, were spoken of in reverential terms such as ‘The Man of Iron’.
When ‘The Louisville Lip’, Cassius Clay, changed his name to Muhammad Ali it was more than the right-wing press could do to refer to him by his new Muslim name. Opposing fighters were well aware of how much it upset him to be continuously referred to by his ‘slave name’ so would choose to call him ‘Cassius Clay’ in an effort to antagonise him.
“With Your Pen You Torture Men” Michael Jackson
Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson formed a triumvirate of the most famous black men of their times in 20th Century America. Each man was subjected to speculation, innuendo and gossip that had the effect of destroying their public image and reducing them to caricatures in the eyes of the public. Michael Jackson, for example, stopped being a human being in the eyes of many based on the reporting of him in the tabloid press and media.
There was a systematic quality to the speculation and innuendo that would lead Jackson to refer to it as a ‘pattern’. With gossip ranging from themes such as each man’s finances, sexuality, appearance and politics.
Introducing the concept of financial instability into the public domain would have the effect of lessening each man’s credibility in the eyes of their respective industries. It would put off creditors from investing in each man, it would put off potential business partners from considering partnerships with each man and it would limit each man’s future financial income.
Interestingly, however, gossip about each man’s financial situations would never harm their drawing power as each of them continued to sell out arenas and stadiums even at the end of their respective careers.
While Jack Johnson was living in exile in Europe the press routinely wrote stories about his lack of finances and his desperation for money, with headlines such as ‘Jack Johnson Broke in Spain, Battles for Purses of $200’.
While Muhammad Ali served his 3 and half year ban from boxing at the tail end of the 1960s the press would routinely accuse him of squandering his accrued wealth and financial power. Any financial problems suffered by any of these men would be pounced upon by the press and the media who seemed to delight in their difficulties.
Michael Jackson’s financial details were well documented and routinely exaggerated in order to depict him as ‘unreliable’. The effect of which would be to scare off potential investors and business partners which would, in turn, limit Jackson’s income in life – even though in death his brand would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. As Jackson’s lawyer Tom Mesereau would state in court in 2005, Jackson continued to receive offers worth tens of millions of dollars to tour and to license products.
Jack Johnson and Michael Jackson’s respective careers were both sabotaged while at their peak by accusations of sexual impropriety. The facts behind each allegation would rarely make the press and media outlets and would, instead, be replaced by provably false information and speculation.
When it became clear that there were no white challengers who were going to give Johnson any trouble in the ring, the establishment, instead, turned it’s attention to Jack Johnson’s private life.
Johnson had reviled much of white America by not only defeating every white challenger he fought but also, like Jackson, by publicly dating a number of white women at a time when some US states still enforced miscegenation laws.
The government moved swiftly to investigate Johnson’s private life and used the recently penned Mann Act to prosecute him. Jack Johnson, in fact, would become the first person ever prosecuted under the Mann Act. Johnson was arrested for travelling with his white partner, Lucille Cameron, across state lines, based on complaints by Cameron’s mother of her becoming a ‘play thing’ for a ‘nigger’. The Mann Act was supposed to be a law designed to prevent the non-consensual transportation of women for the means of illicit purposes, where as Johnson was being prosecuted for travelling with a woman he was having a consensual relationship with.
Cameron refused to co-operate with law enforcement, telling the Grand Jury of her love and desire to marry Johnson. After the Cameron case fell down, Belle Schreiber – one of Johnson’s ex-lovers – was threatened with imprisonment if she failed to co-operate with a prosecution. Disgruntled by the way in which her relationship with Johnson had ended, she was convinced to testify against him. The charges against Johnson, however, were formed of ‘crimes’ committed before the Mann Act was even penned.
Michael Jackson’s legal problems began in similar fashion. An allegation of sexual impropriety on Jackson’s behalf, at his peak, by a parent of one of Jackson’s young friends. And that only after having a request for business funding turned down by Jackson.
The fall out of the investigation has been well documented by numerous journalists – by Mary A. Fischer for GQ magazine and by UK journalist Charles Thomson in particular.
To surmise, however, the fall out of the allegations levelled at Jackson would take in investigations by the FBI, unparallel press and media intrusion, suit and counter-suit (including Jackson’s successful claim against the ‘Neverland Five’) and, like Jack Johnson before him, investigations under the Mann Act.
If they couldn’t be quelled in their respective fields then both men would be subjected to public humiliation and intense personal scrutiny with trials pertaining to sexual impropriety.
The concept of the black sexual predator had long been ingrained into the white, US psyche and Jackson, for one (with reading material that included ‘Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America’ – a book that included images of black men hanging from trees for just looking at white women) knew it.
Although Michael Jackson would be found innocent on every charge ever leveled against him, like Johnson (who was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to a year in prison but smuggled his way out of the country to live in exile in Europe), Jackson would choose to live in a temporary self-imposed exile in Bahrain after his trial was over.
He was an innocent man but, for all intents and purposes, was made to live like a guilty one.
“I’m Free To Be What I Want” Muhammad Ali
The day after Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world he gave an interview that would define his reign and public image from that day onwards. “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Ali was telling the media, and the world at large, that he had no intention of being defined by their expectations of him and any limitations they may place on him. It was Ali’s belief that he had the right to the same freedoms enjoyed by any other member of the general public.
It was a belief shared by Jack Johnson, a black man born in turn-of-the-century America to freed parents. It was Johnson’s belief that as a freed black man he was entitled to the same freedoms as his white counterparts.
Each man’s career, however, would be the subject of American government intervention whilst at the height of their powers.
The American law was amended specifically as a result of Jack Johnson’s success as a black boxer. A law was enforced in 1912 to outlaw the transportation of fight films across the country in order to limit the damage to the collective white psyche of there being an African American heavyweight world champion.
Johnson would also become the first person to be prosecuted under the notorious Mann Act of 1910 with evidence brought into court collected before the law had even been passed.
According to the acclaimed author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, Thomas Hauser, the American government acted ‘illegally’ when changing the pass-mark scores for induction into the US Army during the Vietnam war. In 1964 Ali sat, and failed, a qualifying psychological test which would have made him eligible for induction. (It wasn’t until years later that Ali was diagnosed as being dyslexic).
Two years later, however, after becoming the heavyweight champion of the world and becoming the most prominent, international, spokesman for the controversial religious group, the Nation of Islam, the American government reduced the pass mark for induction into the American army which suddenly qualified Ali for induction.
Ali and his inner-circle were of the firm belief that the change in the American constitution was no coincidence and that it was a deliberate move to silence him. Ali’s subsequent prosecution for refusing to be inducted (and his ban from world boxing) would be overturned after three and a half years (which ruled Ali out of the sport during his physical peak).
Similarly, after Michael Jackson’s insurers settled the 1993 allegations which threatened Jackson’s career, the American constitution was amended as a direct result of that settlement. According to Jackson prosecutor Tom Sneddon, “The history of the law is that the L.A. district attorney’s office carried the legislation as a direct result of the civil settlement in the first investigation.” The result of which was that all it took for Jackson to be tried in 2005 was an allegation, however unmeritorious.
“Black Man Gotta Make A Change, White Man Gotta Make A Change…” Michael Jackson
Ali’s problems with the US legal system were not just centred around his race – during Ali’s objection to his induction a lawyer from Georgia started up a ‘Draft That Nigger Clay’ campaign – it was further exacerbated by his own particular political beliefs.
Michael Jackson had long been espousing his own inclusive, leftist political views in both song and film. The short film for Jackson’s 1988 single, Man In The Mirror, above, gives a nod to Jackson’s socio-political beliefs and features the now familiar images and themes in Jackson’s work, including the Ku Klux Klan, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the support of love and peace over war.
The former Beatle, John Lennon, is repeatedly featured in the short film and he is later featured in a montage that is included in the live performance of the song in Jackson’s feature film of 1988, Moonwalker.
Like Lennon, Jackson’s political message was decidedly leftist and populist. Where Lennon wrote, in his masterpiece Imagine, of a world free of the boundaries of ‘countries’, Jackson, in 1980’s Can You Feel It would write ‘we’re all the same’. In later years Jackson’s politics became much clearer and obvious to the watching world, highlighted by his unfurling of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) logo during his half-time performance at the 1993 Superbowl.
These artistic, political statements would litter Jackson’s work, typified by Jackson’s metamorphosis into a racism-defying black panther in his 1991 short film for Black or White. None of these statements on Jackson’s part would prove to be out of character for any of the members of the Hollywood set that Jackson would choose to move in.
Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, for example, became one of Jackson’s closest friends during his 1980s peak. Like her former husband, Ono was a prominent supporter of the Black Panther Party and, along with husband John, even performed at fundraising shows for the Black Panther’s sister party, The White Panther Party. Lennon and Ono would also share correspondence with Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton (addressed to ‘Comrade Huey’) sending support and solidarity, signing off with ‘All power to the people, Love from John and Yoko’.
Rumoured to have enjoyed a romance with Jackson, Jane Fonda was another close, politically-active friend. Along with her other bouts of activism, Fonda both supported and funded the Black Panther Party to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars and also attended meetings and fundraisers for the SNCC. Fonda paid bail for a number of prominent Panther members and on one occasion paid as much as $50,000 for one members bail. She also paid for bills for the party and lent the party her credit card. Fonda would also go on to unofficially adopt African-American teenager, Mary Luana Williams, the daughter of members of the Black Panther Party.
Oscar-winning actor Marlon Brando would prove to become one of Jackson’s closest and most beloved friends, even choosing to spend some of his last days at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch days before passing away. So close was the friendship that Jackson referred to Brando as ‘Dad’ and it was reported that Brando had offered Jackson a half-acre plot on his islet of Onetahi.
Brando was another prolific political activist who, like Ono and Fonda, supported the Black Panther Party. Like Fonda, Brando also helped finance the party and even spoke at the funeral of the party’s treasurer Bobby Hutton. Brando also supported and, indeed, hosted fundraising events for the Panther’s sister party, the SNCC.
Jackson’s closest friend, and a woman he considered a ‘second mother’, was also a supporter of the Black Panther Party and the SNCC. Like Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor was a member of playwright Donald Freed’s ‘Friends of the Panthers’ group, a group of upper-middle-class whites who helped fund and support the Black Panther Party.
And, like Brando, Jackson’s beloved Elizabeth also hosted events to raise funds for the SNCC. Jackson’s show of support for both the ideals of the Black Panther Party and the activism of the SNCC were completely in-line with the beliefs and politics of those closest to him.
Jackson would not only choose to promote leftist, inclusive ideals but he would also choose to openly lambast and lampoon the right wing. The character of ‘The Mayor’ in Jackson’s 1997 film Ghosts has been said to be based on the Santa Barbara DA Tom Sneddon, the man who carried out prosecution proceedings against Jackson in both 1993 and 2003.
Interestingly, during the ‘Making of…’ documentary of Ghosts, the film’s director Stan Winston refers to the Mayor as ‘Mr. Right-Wing, he’s Mr. Establishment…’. A point Jackson adds to by describing The Mayor as ‘Middle-American’.
Jackson’s life may have proven to be easier had he chosen to back away from such confrontations and from espousing his own views in his art. The accusations of 1993, however, would only serve to bring Jackson’s fighting spirit to the fore.
© The Michael Jackson Academia Project