‘There are ways to get there’: continuing Michael Jackson’s humanitarian legacy

Michael Jackson is no stranger to the Guinness Book of World Records. He is listed as holding 30 world records. One of these records stands out from all others, as it has nothing to do with his music. It‘s his record for generosity. Jackson has supported more charities than any other entertainer in the music industry. One of his last wishes was to continue this support after his death. But the Estate that manages Jackson’s legacy cannot comply as long as Jackson’s finances are in limbo. His family and fans, however, know that time waits for no one. They have started their own charities in memory of Jackson, the humanitarian.

Michael Jackson playing with orphans

Exploring life as a humanitarian

Jackson’s charitable work is first highlighted in 1985, when he and Lionel Richie compose We Are The World for the all-star project USA for Africa. The anthem generates more than 60 million dollars for the starving population of Sub-Saharan Africa. Awakened to the plight of the world, Jackson decides to include more songs on social and environmental issues on his albums, resulting in tracks such as Man in the Mirror, Heal the World, and Earth Song.

Yet Jackson’s first explorations as a humanitarian are not made during his adult years as a pop legend, but when he grows up in Gary, Indiana. Using the pocket money that he earns as the youngest member of the Jackson 5, Jackson buys candy to start his own small shop at home. A tablecloth covering a plank across a pile of books forms the impromptu counter of his business. Father Joe, however, is not amused. He doesn’t appreciate his young son reselling the sweets without a profit, so Jackson gets a clip around the ear.

Young Michael Jackson
Young Michael Jackson

Still the little shopkeeper isn’t defeated, according to Jackson’s brother Jermaine in his book You Are Not Alone, Michael Through A Brother’s Eyes: “Days later, Joseph found him in the backyard, giving out candy from across the chain-link fence to other kids from the street. The kids who were less fortunate than us – and he was mobbed. ‘How much you sell ‘em for?’ Joseph asked. ‘I didn’t. I gave them away for free.’”

This seemingly insignificant incident predicts something of Jackson’s later generosity. From the moment he hits the limelight, Jackson participates in charitable activities such as benefit concerts, fundraisers and hospital visits. It’s all part of a shrewd strategy by Motown Records to generate publicity for the Jackson 5. Jackson himself appears to feel genuinely responsible as he quietly sends handwritten letters to peers who are seriously ill.

Young Michael Jackson visiting a children's hospital
Young Michael Jackson visiting a children’s hospital

Memorable hospital visits

Jackson continues to do so as an adult star, scheduling an increasing number of hours for his charitable work. Jackson’s manager in the late 1980s, Frank Dileo, witnesses some of Jackson’s larger humanitarian endeavours. Talking to television reporter Aphrodite Jones in 2010, Dileo recalls that during the Bad world tour, Jackson visited dozens of children’s hospitals to donate medical equipment.

One particular visit is etched in Dileo’s memory: “They had a little boy that was dying and wanted to meet Michael. And Michael went up and talked to him and the kid perked up. It was amazing. And I went off to the corner and I cried. I really couldn’t take it. Michael came over, put his arm around me and said, ‘You have to understand Frank, this is our job. Not on the stage. This is our job. To make somebody feel good.’ He believed that. He absolutely believed that.”

Heal The World Foundation

In 1992 Jackson creates the Heal The World Foundation to structure his humanitarian work. The charity is mostly financed by Jackson himself, including a personal investment of 125 million dollars earned during his Dangerous world tour. One of his first projects is to send 47 tons of relief supplies to Sarajevo during the Balkan war. He also finances ambulances, vaccinations, medical equipment, and toys. Moreover, he pays the hospital bills for children in dire straits.

Michael Jackson and the Heal the World Foundation
Michael Jackson sending a cargo plane with relief supplies to Sarajevo, 1992

Liver transplant

One of these children is Béla Farkas from Hungary. Born with a life-threatening disease, Farkas requires a liver transplant. But when his parents abandon him, the toddler ends up gravely ill and without the slightest chance in a children’s hospital in Budapest. That is, until Jackson visits the hospital in 1994 and takes note of the child.

Not only does Jackson find a liver donor and, together with his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley, finance the transplant, but he also pays for all subsequent surgeries. Two years later, Farkas is adopted by a Hungarian woman. He keeps in touch with Jackson until the pop legend’s untimely death in 2009. Since then, Farkas has become the proud father of a healthy baby girl.

Michael Jackson and Bela Farkas
Lisa Marie Presley (left) and Michael Jackson (right) holding Béla Farkas, Budapest 1994

Staying true to his mission in life

Stories such as these have mostly stayed under the radar. Similarly unknown is the exact number of hours and dollars that Jackson has quietly given to charity. The general estimate is that he handed out a staggering 300 million dollars. But time and effort no longer seem to matter when Jackson’s charitable work comes to a grinding halt in 2005. Following accusations of child abuse, he is arrested and put on trial. After months of intense scrutiny, however, Jackson is found innocent and is acquitted of all charges.

Despite the ordeal, Jackson stays true to what he sees as his mission in life: to help children. For this reason, he stipulates in his will that 20% of his estate must go to charities that support children. So far, the executors of his estate have not been able to comply. Six years after Jackson’s death, the Michael Jackson Estate is still engaged in legal battles over Jackson’s posthumous finances. As long as these funds are not fully secured, Jackson’s money cannot be earmarked for charitable purposes.

The impasse bothers both Jackson’s family and his fans who look for alternative ways of fulfilling Jackson’s last wish. His mother Katherine and his three children decide to cooperate with a new version of the Heal The World Foundation. In 2011, they present a check for 10,000 dollars to a shelter for the homeless in Hollywood. In the same year, the family presents thirteen pieces of art created by Jackson to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

These charitable activities, however, touch a sore spot with Jackson’s Estate. The unauthorized use of Jackson’s name and foundation is not allowed, not even by his own family. When the case is brought to court, the judge rules in favour of the Estate. The Heal The World Foundation is ordered to cease its activities and to transfer ownership to the Estate. Ever since, Jackson’s charity has been defunct.

Michael Jackson visiting hospitals and orphanages in the 1980s and 1990s
Michael Jackson visiting hospitals and orphanages in the 1980s and 1990s

Making a collective difference

Jackson’s fans, however, have not given up. They have simply created their own charities. Heal The World For Children, Michael’s Dream Foundation, and MJ Fans for Charity all aim at the generosity of Jackson’s fan base and at any of the other 75 million people who follow Jackson on Facebook.

Another successful fan initiative is Michael Jackson’s Legacy, based in the UK. So far, this charity has funded two ‘Everland’ orphanages in Haiti and Liberia in addition to half a dozen smaller projects. Not that this is self-evident. The charity’s 2014 Annual Report carefully states: “We do not have the influence that a worldwide superstar can procure, but as individuals, we can ‘make that change’ and collectively, we can make a difference.”

Apparently, it pays off to unite Jackson’s fans in a common philanthropic goal. In 2014 alone, Michael Jackson’s Legacy raised over 30,000 pounds to fund projects such as a playground and pre-school for the Everland orphanage in Haiti, a stall and pasture for abandoned and sick horses in California, plus faucet buckets and hand-washing materials to help combat the Ebola epidemic in Liberia.

Everland Haiti Preschool
Everland Haiti Preschool (Photo: Michael Jackson’s Legacy)

Putting his money where his mouth is

Jackson would have been thrilled. He never ceased to plead for more compassion and concrete action. The iconic mourning band that decorated his costumes was there to remind the world that many children suffered from violence, exploitation and poverty. His Neverland theme park and zoo did not just entertain his own family, but also offered a festive day out to children from deprived areas. Even when Jackson was not at home, the gates of Neverland opened to busloads of children from the ghettos of Los Angeles.

Whether this was to his merit or to his detriment – or both – is a question that still hovers over Jackson’s legacy. Only few have had the courage to publicly applaud Jackson for his tremendous charitable activities, let alone follow in his humanitarian footsteps.

Perhaps this is Jackson’s tragedy. Or perhaps this is our wake-up call. For why do we fear to acknowledge – nay, celebrate – Jackson’s humanitarian achievements? Isn’t it about time that we discard our outdated notion of Jackson as a child-abusing ‘freak’ and take the man at face value: a celebrity advocating children’s rights and putting his money where his mouth is?

Michael Jackson visits a burns victim at the Budapest Children's Hospital, 1994
Michael Jackson visits a burns victim at the Budapest Children’s Hospital, 1994 (Photo: AP)

Creating a better world

By doing so, we might begin to see that Jackson’s vision for a better world wasn’t that far off the mark either. His speech at the 1993 Grammy Awards sounds prophetic in the light of current events: “I realize that many of our world’s problems today – from the inner city crime to large-scale wars and terrorism, and our overcrowded prisons – are a result of the fact that children have had their childhood stolen from them. The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that.”

More than his plethora of music records and awards, this is what makes Jackson’s legacy timeless. Equally lasting is the message that he reiterated time and again: “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change”. Change starts with those who have the courage to leave their comfort zones. Change starts with those who genuinely care. Change starts with those who do not wait for another time and another place.

Jackson didn’t wait. Jackson rolled up his sleeves and set out to work. And he invited everyone to join him. His family and fans are not going to let him down. Nor will his Estate, once all financial matters have been settled. So what about us? Any chance we could create a little space, to make a better place? All we need to do is follow Jackson’s lead. Then the Guinness Book of World Records will no longer need to award his legendary generosity. Because it will become our generosity.

“There are ways to get there, if you care enough for the living.
Make a little space. Make a better place.”
(Heal the World – Michael Jackson)


© Annemarie Latour

Note: This article is also available in Dutch.

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