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Originally published June 25, 2009

A NewsOne Editorial

In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, many tributes will be written about his talent, his musical canon, and even his humanitarian aspirations.

But most of these homages will miss the most important and least appreciated achievement of Michael Jackson.

The rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s and 1960s brought young white Americans into contact with Black culture as never before. But the 1970s brought a disastrous re-segregation of pop music. Radio stations across the country dropped records by Black artists under the guise of “target marketing.” Record companies quarantined Black acts in “Black departments,” refusing to promote these artists to mainstream radio outlets until they had “proven” themselves on Black radio.

By the early 1980s, a new cable channel called Music Television became the nation’s number one promotional vehicle for pop artists.

But MTV didn’t play videos by Black artists.

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Hundreds of talented Black musicians were denied the opportunity for sales and cultural impact because of MTV’s baldfaced racism.

Check out our gallery of photos from Michael’s life:

But Michael Jackson changed all that in 1983. Not only was he the first Black R&B artist to become a star on MTV (after much infighting among the programmers at the channel and pressure from Jackson’s record company, CBS); Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” juggernaut singlehandedly began the re-integration of American music.

He paved the way for Prince, and Run-DMC, and Yo! MTV Raps, and everything that followed: The Cosby Show. The Arsenio Hall Show. In Living Color. The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. He made possible the careers of men like WIll Smith and Jay-Z and women like Beyonce and Mary J. Blige.

Michael Jackson was the launch point for the incredible cultural phenomenon of the late 1980s and 1990s: The “Browning” of America. Michael Jackson may have yearned for a colorblind society, but his true legacy is a colorful nation.

Even as he made a tragic retreat from his own racial identity, Michael Jackson re-introduced mainstream America to Black expression and Black people. By extension, he made the events of 2008 possible.

Michael Jackson, in short, started the movement that created the cultural conditions for the election of our first Black president.

For that, America — and the world — can be eternally grateful.

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