Reverend Al Sharpton stood at a back exit of New York’s Apollo Theater in a gray suit late yesterday afternoon, leaning against the scaffolding, running his fingers through his famous hair. He’d just finished the first of two invocations during the Apollo’s all-day tribute to Michael Jackson. 126th Street was quiet, barricaded at both ends. A car pulled up and Sharpton walked out to greet Spike Lee. They walked towards Adam Clayton Powell together — Lee in white Nikes, Sharpton in black loafers — around the corner to 125th. Cameras flashed, crowds cheered, waved and reached out towards the two legends walking in honor of another, who embraced.
“It was absolutely disgraceful,” Sharpton told Rolling Stone of the media coverage that has torn Jackson apart. “If you look at how they deal with Michael’s so-called shortcomings and then the shortcomings of Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, it’s nowhere in the same world.”
Halfway down the block, Dorothy from Harlem, 43, waited with friends, wearing a button with Michael in the Bad days reading “Peace At Last.” She felt like she lost a family member. “All his life they have tried to tear him apart. But ya know what? You can’t keep a good black man down. You can’t. No matter what, he is who he is. He is who he was. And he’s gonna live on and on and on.”
Every half-hour, 600 more partygoers were ushered into the Apollo for 30-minute intervals. Peggy Pettit, 59, of St. Louis waited hours for Michael. “He was quintessential blackness, spirit. It was distilled, sharp and it ran through you. When his music came on it touched you. James Brown had it, it ran through Michael, now we’re waiting for the next. It ain’t there yet,” she said. “With that, you’re permitted to dress any way you want, you can color yourself any way you want, because you’re touched by the spirit.”
Inside, Grandmaster Flash rushed by with his kids. “He’s had such an impact on so many people for such a span of time,” he told us. “It’s really sad to see him go.”
In the balcony, Vinnett Price remembers Michael coming to Jamaica in 1975. “He went to the ghetto neighborhoods and visited those little places. There’s so many stories that will never be told. I am irate because I’ve seen Michael do many wonderful things. Look at prisoners in the Philippines, 1,400 prisoners dance to him! The people are telling the story.”
Price pulled an invitation to a Thriller release party printed on a white glove from a folder on her lap: February 7, 1984, 9 p.m. American Museum of Natural History. Black Tie. She showed off a picture of herself at the party and said Michael’s date was Brooke Shields.
Onstage, Chubb Rock hyped the next wave of fans. They sang and danced to “One More Chance,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Black or White” and “Remember the Time,” among many others. Flowers, cards, notes, candles, a handful of teddy bears lined the stage.
Al Sharpton appeared and preached. “There’s been an unprecedented allowance of negative, exaggerated and scandalous stories told about Michael Jackson and the Jackson familyâ€¦ In the temple of black entertainment on the stage that produced the Sarah Vaughns and the Ella Fitzgeralds, and the Jackie Wilsons and the James Browns we want to send a message around the world that you can write what you want and say what you want, Michael Jackson was ours and we are Michael Jackson and we love Michael Jackson!” Cheers.
The Apollo stood for a moment of silence. “Because he changed history, because he made us family, because he refused to play within the boundaries of that time. We remember Michael,” Sharpton prayed. “From Harlem to Holland. From Brooklyn to Brussels where ever people believe in love they believe in Michael Jackson.” Silence. Three images of Sharpton with Jackson rotate on the screen. “Amen.”
As his sermon wore on, Sharpton continued pointing his finger at the press. “The reason we don’t listen to what you tell us on the news is we Remember the Time when nobody heard our culture, nobody would listen to our words. You can scandalize him but we know better! Michael wasn’t no freak. Michael was a genius. Michael was an innovator. You can’t take someone with extraordinary skill, extraordinary talent and make them an ordinary person.”
Out front, rain fell hard on the makeshift white wall with handwritten messages. The block was lined with waiting fans, some with umbrellas, many without. George Brown, 36, from Long Island, said he loves the whole Jackson family, especially Janet. Of Michael: “I think he’s doing the right thing, to rest in peace.”