The line snaked from the entrance door to the exit of the second-floor escalator. Teens and elders alike stood, talking about what they expected to hear and whom they wanted to see. It was a testament to his star power.
Frances Davis, 62, didn’t know what the forum was about, but waited in line anyway. When the Philadelphia native heard she was going to hear a star-studded panel discuss music legend Michael Jackson, she said she “had to be there,” Davis wanted them to discuss his life, legacy and the way the media responded to him, which she said was “largely negatively.”
Davis came to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 39th Annual Legislative Conference with a friend and became one of nearly 800 people who gathered in the Washington Convention Center Saturday to celebrate Jackson’s life. The same things Davis hoped to hear were at the top of the panel’s agenda.
“The impact that he had on this world was confirmed right after he passed in June,” Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said of Jackson. “We need to capture his spirit. We need to capture his reach.”
The program, titled “Michael Jackson: A Legend in Life and in Death. An Artist Empowerment Examination of the Truth About His Music, His Life and His Legacy,” was sponsored by The Source magazine and featured the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Princeton University professor Cornel West, Ph.D., and Jackson estate attorney L. Londell McMillan, among other media and government powers.
Watson said she wants Jackson to be remembered for his positive accomplishments instead of the negative publicity he’d been given in his last years.
Jackson, a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and winner of 13 Grammy awards, was also a philanthropist who shared his love with the world’s powerless individuals.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D- Texas, recalled the day when Jackson visited her D.C. office. “He came giving,” Lee recalled. “He came as a caretaker. He came to talk about the piercing devastation of HIV/AIDs. He came to speak seriously. He came to speak out of his heart.”
That day, government employees left their offices unattended to be in his presence, and 15 world ambassadors listened to him speak. “Why did they come?” Lee asked, “Because of the trust and confidence of the man who led ‘We are the World.’ He used his musical genius to be able to be ‘We are the World.'”
The song, along with “Heal the World” and other Jackson singles addressing social issues, helped create the legacy he left outside his music career, including awareness of HIV/AIDS, world hunger and the plight of powerless children.
Watson said Jackson was “one of the largest philanthropists that this country has produced.” Congress, in turn, is listing his philanthropic efforts on a resolution to become part of its record.
While Jackson’s philanthropic legacy was often overshadowed by his legal troubles and rumors of sexual relationships with underage boys, he left a musical legacy that undeniably transcended cultures and created diversity unknown before his time.
“You can argue that without Michael, BET would have never become a successful business,” said Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television.
When play on MTV was make-or-break for music artists, Jackson became a hit on the nearly all-white station. Although he didn’t need BET to gain popularity, Lee said, he released his videos to both stations simultaneously, so neither would have the upper hand.
“He allowed us to stay in the game even when MTV opened its doors and started playing black videos.”
Lee said Jackson’s passing three days before the network’s award show was his “last gift” to BET, as 10.7 million viewers watched the revamped tribute show, making it the largest award show in cable this year.
“When it comes to music,” West said, “we talked about Jackie Wilson. We talked about James Brown. We talked about a whole host of others. He was the crystallization of the greatest creation in the modern world, which is that of black music.”