The Rev. Al Sharpton made the most provocative comment at Michael Jackson's memorial service last Tuesday.
"It was Michael Jackson that brought blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos together," he said. "Because Michael Jackson kept on, he created a comfort level where people that felt they were separate, became inter-connected with his music...(Kids) got comfortable enough with each other to later it wasn't strange to us to watch Oprah on television. It wasn't strange to watch Tiger Woods golf. Those young kids grew up from being teenage comfortable fans of Michael to being 40 years old and being comfortable to vote for a person of color to be the president of the United States of America.
"Michael did that," Sharpton concluded. "Michael made us love each other."
You have to allow for a certain amount of hyperbole at memorial services. It's the one time a speaker can be forgiven for laying it on a little thick. People attending such events don't expect that comments will be kept in strict historical perspective. But now that a week has passed since the service, let's take a look at the point Sharpton made. Was it valid, an overstatement or a wild exaggeration?
Sharpton had his chronology right. Someone who was 40 in 2008 was 15 in 1983 when Thriller became the best-selling album in history. And Jackson did achieve a historic level of success. He was the first African American musician to become a pop idol on the level of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Such earlier black singers as Nat "King" Cole and Stevie Wonder were (and still are) beloved, but their posters weren't on the bedroom walls of millions of kids of all races.
I just think he overstated his case in making it sound like Jackson was the only person, or even the primary person, responsible for this breakthrough. Scores of African American entertainers and sports stars have played a key role in breaking down stereotypes and changing attitudes.
Here are 20 of the most important:
Bill Cosby. Cosby made TV history when I Spy hit the air in 1965. He became the first black performer to star in a weekly dramatic series. Cosby's work on the show brought him three Emmy Awards. In 1984, he hit his career peak on the phenomenally successful The Cosby Show. Cosby, 72, has also won nine Grammys. He paved the way for Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, among many others.
Sidney Poitier. In 1964, Poitier became the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Lilies Of The Field. Four years later, he starred in two of the year's Best Picture finalists: In The Heat Of The Night (which won) and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? Poitier, 82, was the first black actor to become a mass-appeal movie star.
Jackie Robinson. In April 1947, Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. He joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American player of the modern era. He paved the way for such other immortals as Willy Mays, 78, and Hank Aaron, 75. Robinson died of a heart attack in October 1972. He was 53.
Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey, 55, has been the most powerful person in entertainment and media for so long, it's hard to remember who it was before she came along. Her talk show has been #1 in daytime since it went national in 1986. She also has a successful magazine, amid countless other ventures. Her endorsement helps sell everything from books to Presidential candidates.
Muhammad Ali. Ali was the first boxer to win the world heavyweight championship three times. He was a highly controversial figure in the 1960s. Now, he's respected as one of the greatest athletes who ever lived and as someone who lived his life his way. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Century. In 2001, Will Smith played the legend in the movie Ali. Ali is 67.
Michael Jordan. Jordan is not only considered the greatest basketball player of all time, but someone who broke ground for African Americans in product endorsements. Jordan, 46, was the driving force behind the success of Nike's Air Jordan sneakers, which were introduced in 1985. He also starred in the 1996 feature film, Space Jam.
Will Smith. Smith, 40, is the world's most bankable and versatile movie star. He has had hit movies in just about every genre. Before his movie career, he headlined a hit TV show, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, and had a long run of hit records, both on his own and with D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
Denzel Washington. In 2002, Washington became the first African American since Sidney Poitier to win the Oscar for Best Actor. Both actors rank among the top leading men of their generations. Washington, 54, first gained notice in 1982 on the TV show St. Elsewhere. He has since brought to life numerous characters, including such real-life figures as Steve Biko, Malcolm X and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
Aretha Franklin. Franklin is the eternal Queen of Soul. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Franklin, 67, had a #1 hit in 1967 with Otis Redding's "Respect," which many groups have adopted as an anthem of liberation and empowerment. Franklin has won 18 Grammys.
Bob Marley. Strictly speaking, Marley wasn't African American. He was born in Jamaica. But he had a huge impact in the U.S. The reggae superstar was an international icon, admired both for his groundbreaking music with the Wailers and for his "One Love" social philosophy. The 1984 compilation Legend is among the best-selling albums of all time. Marley died of cancer in May 1981. He was 36.
Quincy Jones. I'm focusing on performers, which is why such moguls as Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. don't appear on the list. But Jones, 76, is both a key behind-the-scenes figure and an out-front celebrity. He has won 27 Grammy Awards, more than any other African American in history (and second only to classical conductor Sir Georg Solti among all recipients). Jones is a producer, arranger, recording artist and TV and publishing power player.
Ray Charles. Charles' classic albums include 1962's Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, which topped The Billboard 200 for 14 weeks. In 1972, he recorded a soulful version of "America The Beautiful" that captured both pride and pain. Charles, the winner of 17 Grammys, died of liver disease in June 2004. He was 73. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for playing the singer in 2004's Ray.
James Brown. Brown had 94 Hot 100 hits, more than any other black artist (and second only to Elvis Presley among all artists). Brown spoke for a generation of African Americans in his 1968 hit "Say It Loud-I'm Black And I'm Proud." The singer, dancer and showman died of heart failure in December 2006. He was 73.
Stevie Wonder. When Wonder was just 13, he had the #1 single and the #1 album in the U.S. And things went up from there, with such classics hits as "I Was Made To Love Her" and "For Once In My Life." But he really hit his stride in 1974, when Innervisions became the first of three consecutive Wonder releases to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Wonder, 59, has amassed 45 top 40 hits (more than any other African American artist). He has also been awarded 25 Grammys.
Dennis Haysbert. From 2001-2006, Haysbert played President David Palmer on the TV series, 24. Haysbert wasn't the first African American to play the President. Two legendary actors played the role (James Earl Jones in 1972's The Man and Morgan Freeman in 1998's Deep Impact). But Haysbert's portrayal was probably seen by more people. Haysbert, 55, also lends his authoritative, bass voice to commercials for Allstate insurance.
Harry Belafonte. Belafonte had numerous hit albums from the late '50s through the mid-'60s, including Calypso, which logged 31 weeks at #1 on The Billboard 200. Belafonte, 82, has also long been known as a social activist. He participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963 and in the "We Are The World" recording session in 1985. He won two Grammys and an Emmy.
Tina Turner. The indomitable Turner was on the cover of the second issue of Rolling Stone in 1967 (John Lennon was on the premiere issue). That was just about the last time she was second at anything. In 1984, she became a symbol of overcoming struggles when she hit #1 with "What's Love Got To Do With It." Her life story inspired the 1993 movie of the same name starring Angela Bassett. Turner, 69, has won eight Grammys.
Diana Ross. The Supremes had 12 #1 hits in the 1960s, a total topped in that decade only by the Beatles, with 18. The trio's style and class in countless TV appearances made a lasting impression. Ross went solo in 1970 and promptly hit #1 with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." The singer/actress, 65, received an Oscar nomination for playing Billie Holiday in 1972's Lady Sings The Blues.
Smokey Robinson. The ultra-smooth singer and songwriter led the Miracles to a long run of hits before going solo in 1972. The group's classics include "Ooh Baby" and "The Tracks Of My Tears." Robinson, 69, has also recorded many solo hits, including "Cruisin'" and "Just To See Her."
Lionel Richie. Richie's group, the Commodores, emerged five years after the Jackson 5 landed their first hit. Richie released his first solo album three years after Jackson put out Off The Wall, his first solo album as an adult. But if Richie, 60, was usually a step or two behind Jackson, he has his own distinct "brand" as a middle-of-the-road communicator.
There are dozens of other African American singers, actors and athletes who could have made this list, but I tried to keep it to 20. I focused mostly on stars of recent vintage, which disqualified such immortals as Nat "King" Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. as well as such rock-era stars as Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye. I also left off most musical acts who emerged after Jackson, which struck Prince, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey among many others.
The point is that Sharpton's comment that "Michael did that. Michael made us love each other" doesn't tell the whole story. Jackson was one of many talented African American artists who "did that." It doesn't take anything away from Jackson to point out that it was a shared accomplishment, not a solitary one.