My wife and I recently saw the Broadway Musical “Motown.” Motown wasn’t just a musical, however, it connected to the history of America through the sounds of Motown. We loved the show, all the acts and all the songs. However, we were pleasantly surprised that the greatest and loudest applause both during and after the show was given to the performers performing as the Jackson 5.
As I looked around, the audience was a mix of 50ish folks like my wife and I and 20 somethings. As we drove home my wife and I started reminiscing about “growing up with the Jackson 5.” What we discovered is that history has not really given the Jackson 5 their just due as it relates to the impact they had on African-Americans as well as the rest of the nation in the early 1970’s. In this article I want to correct this oversight.
The Jackson 5’s heralded arrival in American popular culture in 1969 was at a pivotal time in American society. They were the first recording act whose first four releases were number one hits on both the black (R&B) and white (pop) billboard music charts. However, just a year before in 1968 America’s urban inner cities were burning.
For African-Americans who lived in the North, the mid 1960’s was a time of urban riots brought on by their frustrations with poverty, poor schools, police brutality, inadequate access to healthcare, chronic high unemployment, and overt employment discrimination. In the South, fifteen years after the US Supreme ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation in public education should end with all deliberate speed, southern States openly defied the Supreme Court's ruling.
In the summer of 1967, President Johnson appointed a federal commission, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to investigate the riots in predominantly black areas of major American cities. Otto Kerner, then Governor of the state of Illinois was selected by the President to chair the commission. The Kerner Commission recommended sweeping federal initiatives to address those frustrations and recommended a national income supplement initiative, similar to the subsidies given to corporations to produce or not produce certain products. The Commission’s most remembered passage warned that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
On April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation’s capital was burning, engulfed by riots that would last four days. Riots broke out in more than a hundred cities in the United States following Dr. King’s assassination.
Then 1968 gave way to 1969 and the promise of a new decade, the 1970’s.
In December 1969 Motown introduced America to what would be its last super group, the Jackson 5. With eleven-year-old Michael singing lead and brother Jermaine signing second lead, the Jackson 5’s first single “I Want You Back” hit radio stations and they became overnight heroes to African-Americans, bigger than any government program. Five African-American brothers helped African Americans turn their attention from everyday mistrust and frustration, with the government that had plagued the 1960’s, to an African-American family from humble beginnings in Gary, Ind. The Jackson 5 proved that the African-American family unit was not extinct.
The Jackson 5 represented a new generation of African-American entertainers with their Afros and bellbottom pants that embraced all that was black and beautiful. Even white America now believed that black was beautiful. Eleven-year-old lead singer Michael was a pint-size James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Bill Robinson and Cab Calloway rolled up into one. And unlike so many of the present young entertainers, the Jackson 5 played their own instruments. Brothers Tito and Jermaine played lead and bass guitar and two cousins played the drums and electric piano. No member was over 18 years old.
The Jackson 5 demonstrated that African Americans could rise to the occasion despite insurmountable odds and be the best at their chosen professions. Elementary school age children regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity all wanted to imitate Jackson 5. Even in my 5th grade class in my small hometown of Pass Christian, Miss. the Jackson 5 helped the newly integrated elementary school maneuver through integration.
In August of 1969, the Mississippi gulf coast was nearly obliterated by a category five-hurricane name Camille. The school year began in October of 1969 after the National Guard cleaned the area. Tension between the white and African-American students was high, more so at the high school than the elementary school where I was a fifth grader. However, I had my share of fights with a few white boys who were in 5th and 6th grade.
But in January 1970, The Jackson 5’s first song, “I Want You Back,” swept the country. By the time they debuted on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” lots of elementary school age children wanted to be a member of the Jackson 5. Somehow one of our teachers started having weekly talent shows in his classroom. We all had a five-member groups singing Jackson 5 songs. As a result, my memories of elementary school are that we had far less fights and more happy times.
The Jackson 5 even brought family and communities together even if only for a brief moment. My wife, who grew up in Harlem, remembers that when the Jackson 5 appeared on television, folks who normally sat on the stoops, or kids who played in the streets all went home or to the apartment on the block that had a television to watch the Jackson 5 perform. We did the same thing in Mississippi. I suspect this was duplicated in most African-American neighborhoods.
When “ABC” their second number one hit was released, it was cool to be smart in school because the Jackson 5 said it was easy as 1-2-3. A whole new teen genre was created as a by-product of Jackson 5 merchandising. Teen magazines like “Right On” would be the forerunners of present day social media like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
The Jackson 5 helped America transition from the assassinations and riots of the 1960’s to look to the future for hope and opportunity. The sense of pride the Jackson 5 instilled in all us young kids of the 1970’s lives on in us now as we have moved on from kids, to parents, and grandparents. Though Michael Jackson is no longer with us his positive impact on African Americans during the early 1970’s cannot be underscored.
No musical group from an underrepresented population in the history of the United States uplifted a population and nation like the Jackson 5. The way the audience responded to the scenes with the Jackson 5 during the Motown Musical, based on the backdrop of civil rights, the Vietnam war, and the urban riots, demonstrates that in our collective thought the Jackson 5, if only for a brief moment, brought communities together for the common good.
Accordingly, I believe The Jackson 5 of the early 1970’s, is deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Obama you grew up with the Jackson 5 and you know what I’m talking about. Before you leave office you can help correct this oversight by awarding the Jackson 5 of the early 1970’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s easy as 1-2-3.