Pop king Michael Jackson has been dead for one year. But the controversy that surrounded his life didn't end with his death. On June 25, the eve of the first anniversary of his death, Latoya Jackson loudly declared that her brother was murdered. Why? Because he had grown too rich and powerful, and posed a threat. Sister Latoya didn't say who her brother Michael posed the threat to, but then, she didn't have to. The Jackson family and legions of fans have bandied about the charge that Jackson was the victim of foul play, and it's been hotly discussed and debated on blogs and websites since that fateful day a year ago.
The murder conspiracy theories are just the tip of the iceberg of the Jackson controversy. A year after his death, news reports were filled with rampant speculation and guesswork about Jackson's financial woes; squabbles between his attorneys and former attorneys over who represents who and what in divvying up Jackson's estate; and reports of more finger-pointing by Joe Jackson about Jackson's death. This is no surprise. Jackson made news even when he didn't do anything to make news during his life.
Jackson's infamous child molestation trial in 2005, for a time, was the centerpiece of much of the chatter back and forth about Jackson's actions. The acquittal didn't end that. Debate still rages over whether Jackson was an innocent victim of greedy, media-hungry parents or of his own actions. Then there was Jackson's on-again, off-again, quirky, ambivalent relationship with African Americans and his seemingly confused racial identity. For many blacks, Jackson was little more than a Casper-the-ghost-looking ambiguous black man with bleached skin, a nose job, eye shade, straight hair and gyrating hips who had made a ton of money and had been lauded, fawned over and adored by whites. This was more than reason for some blacks to view him with a jaundiced eye.
Jackson, for the most part, stayed mum about the controversy. He always seemed to want much more—more than to be thought of as just an entertainer and a musician, and he certainly did not want to be a polarizing figure. Jackson was much more. A year later, it's worth remembering what exactly Michael was.
The first inkling that Jackson was more than just a pampered, oddball recluse came after the burn accident he suffered while filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984. Jackson quietly forked over the $1.5 million he received in the accident settlement to the Burn Center at Brothman Hospital in Southern California. He drew accolades in 1985 when he and Lionel Richie wrote "We Are the World" and performed the music as part of an all-star cast of singers and celebrities to raise money for African charities. But that was pretty much what was known about Jackson.
Few knew then, and many still don't, about Jackson's charitable giving and the list of the peace and social-justice-related activities he was involved with. The list numbered more than 50 known charities and organizations that he gave to during the 1990s, both individually and through his expansively named Heal the World Foundation. The foundation was mired in a messy organizational and tax wrangle that briefly made headlines in 2002. Yet there was virtually no press mention when Jackson jumpstarted the foundation again in 2008 with a fresh wad of cash.
In the months and years after his 2005 child-molestation trial acquittal, debate raged over whether he was a washed-up, health-challenged, damaged-goods and financially strapped one-time pop star who desperately wanted to snatch back a glimmer of his past glory. Or whether he still had some of the trademark Jackson flare and talent left.
Even that debate, though, seemed to pass Jackson by, as he knew his every word and act was still instant news and that he still had hordes of fans who would heap dreamy-eyed adulation on him.
The quest to seal a legacy as more than a Pop King told much about Jackson's desire that the small but unseen and much-neglected part of his life, his charitable work, be known and remembered. He wanted to be remembered as more than just a black man who made his living grabbing his crotch before millions. Or a man whose other claim to notoriety was that he delighted in surrounding himself with packs of children.
A year later, Jackson's reported financial troubles, the murder-conspiracy allegations, the looming manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray and the occasional faint whispers about his alleged questionable child relations still badly cloud the Jackson legacy. There's still the other Jackson, though: the man who unselfishly gave his money, time and name for humanitarian causes. This is, undoubtedly, the Jackson that he wanted the world to know and remember. It's the Jackson that we should remember, too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge" (Middle Passage Press). Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/earlhutchinson.