Long Before 'Thriller,' Jackson Shattered Racial Barriers

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Getty Images

In 1972, when the movie "Ben" premiered and sent that falsetto voice of little Michael Jackson soaring across movie screens, the joy inside black America was palpable. It wasn't just that the song raced to No. 1 on the charts, it was that it flowed from the magic of film. And black America, long kept away from mainstream movies, kept a close eye on — and a keen interest in — the world of Tinseltown.


Little Michael had come upon this particular movie only 18 years after the collapse of legal segregation in the United States. And many of the movie houses that showed "Ben" had once been theaters where blacks could not gain admittance. In urban America, the reality of the times had hardly gone unnoticed. The '60s may have been over, but the battles it took to shape them still hung in the air.

In the '70s, groups of middle-aged black Americans could still reminisce about the chitlin circuit and the world of vaudeville, two popular venues for gifted black performers. Maybe they had seen Moms Mabley out there on the circuit; maybe they had seen Redd Foxx in some pungent-smelling juke joint in Atlantic City; maybe they had even seen the high-stepping Nicholas brothers — Fayard and Harold — soaring over chairs on a stage over in Baltimore.

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