Inner Michael » Part 3 of 8 Black or White: a little more history

Part 3 of 8 Black or White: a little more history

Michael Jackson will always have a place in music history and even pop culture but what about in history as in the evolution of man—or humankind? Michael played a huge part in the advancement of humanity as an African American, as a freedom fighter and peace activist.

The world that Michael grew up in was much different than the world today. Racism was a fact of life and insidious and unlike today’s pressure to be politically correct that forces prejudice underground, it was socially acceptable to be openly prejudiced. Michael was five years old and just began singing with his brothers when Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Michael was ten when James Brown’s power anthem “I’m Black and I’m Proud” hit the charts and that was the same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated.

The Jackson Five, when starting out, made the “chitlin’ circuit which is a slang reference to making the rounds of clubs and music venues specifically for black entertainers. Chicago’s Regal Theater and New York’s Apollo Theater were landmark clubs on the circuit. The word “chitlin’ is an abbreviation for chitterlings which is pig intestines, considered a food staple for poor black families. Since Negro artists were not welcome in white clubs, they started their own string of clubs; many well known entertainers got their start on the chitlin’ circuit.

So, Michael grew up in the midst of the battle for desegregation and civil rights for African Americans. “The Michael Code” and coda is informed by Michael’s experience during his early years. He fought prejudices openly with finesse and a bold directness via his own code embedded in his work. Many could decipher it and many more would assimilate subliminally—and that made Michael Jackson a threat to be reckoned with. 

A powerful black man was a threat to those who wanted to maintain the status quo. And a rich powerful black man was frightening for whites who felt the need to keep the Caucasian race superior. Michael would have drawn fire and some of it would have been covert. He even received death threats. In those years, the FBI kept files on anyone who stirred any controversy—John Lennon even had a file. We will probably never know who was watching Michael and tracking his movements because he was seen as a threat capable of causing civil unrest or revolution or perhaps even inciting a riot. He was too rich and powerful in the eyes of those with a vested interest in controlling and oppressing the Negro and “keeping them in their place” within the social strata.

In order to give you a graphic taste for what the sixties were like, I have taken an excerpt with permission from the new book by Andrew Himes: The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. *

“I was 13 years old when cracks began to appear in my world. It was 1963, and I was a skinny, desultory, and intimidated member of the Mighty Trojan Marching Band of Millington Central High School, an all-white public institution. I sat on the rear bench seat of a yellow school bus on a Friday evening as we drove through a Negro neighborhood in Memphis on our way to play a football game with another all-white school. I clutched a battered baritone horn in my lap and adjusted my ill-fitting black wool uniform, redolent with the Friday night sweat of generations of band members before me, and straightened the deteriorating loops of gold braid adorning my shoulders.

Black children played in the hard-packed dirt yards of the tin-roofed, unpainted row houses we drove past, and their elders sat in rocking chairs on their front porches overlooking the scene as dusk fell and the bluish glow of mercury streetlights suffused the street. In the seats in front of me, the other boys in our band cranked open the windows, stuck their heads out, and began screaming at the children and the elderly Negroes on their porches: “Nigger, nigger, nigger! Yard apes! Baboons!” On the front seat of our bus, seated next to the driver, was our teacher and band director, Mr. Nersesian, a short and swarthy Armenian known as a killer disciplinarian with a wooden paddle taller than he and drilled with holes to better suck back the flesh of an offending buttock on an energetic backswing. Mr. Nersesian kept his eyes steadfastly trained on the road ahead, ignoring the screaming boys behind him.

I slunk down in my seat, ashamed and cringing in my Trojan uniform. I hated what they were saying and doing, but they were bigger, louder, and more self-confident than I was, and I was afraid to object.

A few weeks later, I stood in the hallway outside the door of my eighth grade English class. A dozen feet away from me the first black children ever to attempt to integrate my school, a boy and a girl, stood with their backs against the wall next to the drinking fountain. Between us, ranging up and down the hallway was a mob of several score of my classmates, many of them hollering “Nigger! Nigger! Go home, niggers! Go back to the jungle!” Boys from my class came out of the restroom with little plastic sandwich bags full of urine, hurling their bags at the black children.

I was rooted to my spot, crying uncontrollably, straining to see the black children through my tears, noting the terror in their dark eyes and how they held onto each other and how the boy shifted his body and held up his hand to ward off the missiles thrown at them. I had never been so conscious of my sinful nature, of my cowardliness, of my uselessness. I knew my silence made me as guilty in the sight of God as my classmates.”  


There were other black artists with anthems holding up the civil rights movement—Marvin Gaye with “What’s Goin’ On?” Sister Sledge and “We Are Family,” Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s a New World Order’” Bob Marley’s “Get Up; Stand Up,” and of course James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” among others. Berry Gordy and Stax Records were instrumental in the black artist freedom and civil rights movement. And Michael’s message embedded in his music and short films helped to revolutionize thinking and bolster civil rights. Michael taught with Socratic wisdom and esoteric symbolism – he asked the questions without asking the questions.

Michael’s way was to awaken his audiences so they might challenge their own complacency and expand their repertoire of possibility. Michael always challenged “what is” with a mirror of “what could be.” Masterful visionary stuff!

“Black or White,” Michael Jackson’s hit, was released in the fall of 1991 and quickly headed for number one—making him the first artist to have number ones for three decades. His video “Black or White,” released a few days later was the most anticipated short film in history was premiered simultaneously in 27 countries, with an audience of 500 million viewers, the most to ever watch a music video.

The controversy began instantly especially about the “panther dance” scene where Michael dances suggestively and smashes windows and eventually zips his open fly. Knowing the Michael code helps to decipher what Michael was trying to say with Black or White.

Ever the showman and P.T. Barnum student, Michael boldly went where no one had gone before. Black or White was a rant, a protest, an education, a suggestion and a declaration all at the same time. To be understood fully, it must be viewed and analyzed in the context of the times and Michael’s life.

Next: Black or White Part II

*Andrew Himes is the founder of Voices Education Project.
Sword of the Lord will be released on May 15, 2011


  1. Sue Springer said . . .

    Rev. B, I am so glad you are doing this series, and so happy that you have voiced the freedom fighter that he was. I am 4 1/2 years older than Michael. I am white, and was raised by wonderful parents who not only taught me that all of us are equal, they both lived what they believed. Our home growing up knew all colors, religions and preferences, and refused to accept any hatred of any kind. I married in 1975, my late husband was black and 20-years my senior. I have so many stories of what he faced throughout his lifetime, and a few episodes we faced together. It is so important that articles such as your series, and Mr. Himes book, continue to be written because there is still so much work to do. I believe in my heart that a large percent of the ugly press against Michael and his continued vilification in the press is unadulterated bigotry, plain and simple. Young people need to understand that it continues and it is still as damaging, and to know that courage and strength he embodied in his work. This series has brought back many memories, most of them loving ones and ones of the courage of many people throughout my lifetime. My late husband loved Michael and his brothers, although he died 3 years before Black or White was released. He would have been very proud. Because he was so much older, he always referred to Michael as that “amazing child.” He said to me once that Michael was all heart, and that he worried about him, “because the world is never kind to people who live from their heart alone.” He said this in 1983, long before we learned how ugly it would get. How prophetic. I believe that only someone who had suffered the indignities of biogtry and prejudice, but lived his life with dignity and love, could have understood fully what Michael faced for the future. I like to think that they have met at Home. Thank you for this, Rev. B. Love and peace.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  2. Malcy Dsouza said . . .

    Dear Barbara, Yours is a well written concise truthful account of the problems faced by people due to racism. MJ in his own way tried and successfully brought to the fore awareness to all about racism. His target group was the youth of the time. His music is timeless and still influences the youth of today. He was feared by the powers that be for this very reason.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Lauren said . . .

    I grew up on the East Coast, white, almost middle class in a large family and I had little to no contact with anyone of color until after high school. One of my early jobs exposed me to a very nice, friendly black lady that I recall clearly now 30 years later. The late 60’s was a turbulent time and messages of freedom fighters and the quest for equality reached this young girl in her sheltered world and I remember feelings of elation and rebellion. Seeking to leave home I married… and I married a black man. Well, not a man exactly, at 19. He was accepted by his peers because of his athletic abilities. His father, on the other hand, told many stories of a life full of restrictions because of his color. He was a caddy, but couldn’t play golf at the club; he was in the military but couldn’t leave the base; he worked as a janitor and never went to college. Yet he had a quiet dignity and suppressed anger that I saw in his eyes sometimes. I know and recall stares and discrimination in housing, at restaurants, social events and school. I lived in their world for a number of years and won’t ever forget the experience. They taught me to love Motown and James Brown and that young man I married all those years ago introduced me to a young kid named Michael. We cried together on the phone the day he died.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 2:53 am | Permalink
  4. Heidi said . . .

    Having grown up in Milwaukee I still remember having to “flee” the area because “the blacks were coming” with the Chicago riots, and whites were utterly terrified at the thought. I also remember as a very little girl wondering why my parents and others couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the WHYS of the upsets and rage. How many of them would stand for one minute the oppression others suffered for generations? I LOVE your phrase THE MICHAEL CODE. An entire book could be written under that title. Subtitle: Universal Principles.

    Posted April 14, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  5. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    “The Michael Code” is a book title. : )

    Posted April 15, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  6. Dalia said . . .

    I think one of the concerns of Michael was trying to get the world to understand his philosophy about humanity. When you look around you realize that many things are wrong and might be well if only we understood human beings we are all made ​​of the same and are part of a fragile balance between man and nature. He wanted to change that mentality and also this video is a challenge for those who currently participate, promote and organize racist movements hatred and contempt to other individuals or groups. Michael knew the power of marketing to reach the masses and had the power to be a global showcase using his resources to show their artwork in such messages. That is also part of his legacy. Interesting post, thanks Barbara.

    Posted April 15, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  7. b.r.e.h said . . .

    love it

    Posted February 5, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

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