Preserving Our Icons: Michael Jackson x Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted By Audrey J. Bernard

Michael Jackson was just four months shy of his 10th birthday and on the cusp of the Jackson 5 releasing their breakout, 1969 hit, “I Want You Back,” on the Motown label when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the age of 39 on April 4, 1968.

Both achieved extraordinary notoriety for their contributions to the world. Both men left indelible marks on history: Dr. King in civil and human rights and Michael in music and philanthropy. Both broke barriers and opened doors of opportunity for Black Americans as well as all Americans. Both dreamed of bringing people together, regardless of race, culture, class, or ethnicity. Both died as young men; even though they achieved more in their short lives than many with the gift of more years, they still left so much unfinished. Michael Jackson’s beautiful ballad, “Gone Too Soon,” seems most appropriate when we think of how much more they could have given to the world, with the gift of more years. 

From the public’s vantage point, these two black icons – one a civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner and the other a record-breaking, multiple Grammy® award-winning artist — could not be more different. Although vastly different in career and lifestyle, Michael Jackson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a common trait, a trait that ultimately denotes power: They both were able to attract and organize the masses and inspire them to unity. What Dr. King and Jackson accomplished, particularly in the area of promoting peace and unity, serves as progressive milestones for social change and a better world.

“When they all hold hands…and everybody’s rockin’…all the races are there…it’s the most wonderful thing! Politicians can’t even do that,” Jackson on the ability his music to bring people together.

Their flames burned bright in life and though their voices are silent now, their legacies continue to loom large, which is why we must all be concerned about any events that may mar or mute their heritages.

During the civil rights era, an intense and years-long effort to discredit Dr. King was orchestrated by the FBI. Among the alleged findings were unsubstantiated claims of communism and sexual activities with dozens of women. Likewise, in the early 2000s Michael Jackson, found himself entangled in legal proceedings due to serious allegations for which he was acquitted by a jury during a 2005 trial.

Something is taking place now that should concern all of us.

Fast forwarding to today, the legacies of both men are under scrutiny, only this time, in their earthly absence. Throughout Dr. King’s leadership during and after the Civil Rights Movement, the FBI was engaged in a prolonged campaign to make his standing and those of other key civil rights activists more tenuous.

The most recent accusations against Jackson come after a judge had already dismissed the accusers’ litigation proceedings pertaining to their claims. However, over the past few months, the accusations have reverberated each time Michael Jackson is mentioned. His good name has been under an increasing threat despite the fact that the accusers’ claims are uncorroborated, and in spite of the best efforts of many people to preserve his name and legacy.

When MTV recently announced that the MTV Video Music Awards’ “Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award” shall remain named  the “Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award”  (presented this year to Missy Elliott) only one person objected, and that person was one of accusers who unsuccessfully sued Michael’s estate for hundreds of millions of dollars. More loudly, many applauded MTV’s decision. The point of the matter is that what Jackson accomplished in his lifetime earned him such a distinguished honor. His achievements are part of him and his legacy and cannot be diminished or muted in any way. To try to do so would be tantamount to rewriting history. 


Defamation protection for deceased individuals is not possible from a legal standpoint, as current laws do not provide such a benefit. The high profile allegations involving Dr. King and Jackson, though very different, are egregious and have prompted institutions such the UCLA School of Law Ziffren Center and USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism to co-host an event that sought to spark more dialogue about defamation of deceased individuals as well as the need for fair and balanced views in the media.

Money. Power. Respect. Three things Black men have historically had to work harder to attain than any of their non-ethnic counterparts.

But implications for the legacies of Dr. King and Jackson could have latent effects far beyond tarnishing their names. The negative impacts of tarnished legacies of highly accomplished black men can be lingering and have deep, lasting ripples in the black community. If the legacies of black, iconic figures are destroyed, damaged, or muted, we are in jeopardy of history being rewritten. Without knowledge of history, the futures of us all are in serious peril.

Alarm bells aside, what is happening should give us all pause and reflection on the burning question: If the legacies of these notable figures can be tarnished, who’s next?

This is an issue of great importance for all Americans and it is time to think about a collective, coordinated effort to protect and preserve Black icons’ legacies, and in fact, the legacies of all deceased public figures, regardless of race or ethnicity.

This article was made possible by the Supporters of Michael Jackson’s Legacy.