Mahalia Jackson was one of the most powerful vocalists in the U.S., often referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.” She was also a civil rights activist. She said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.” Harry Belefonte called her “the single most powerful black woman in the United States.”
Born Mahala Jackson and nicknamed “Halie”, she grew up in the Black Pearl section of New Orleans. She began her singing in the Mount Moriah Baptist Church, where she had been baptized as a member in the Mississippi River. At 16 she moved to Chicago, continuing to sing in church choirs. In 1929 her career leaped forward when she met Tommy Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel Music. Dorsey began coaching her, and they toured for 14 years. Refusing to sing secular music, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Dorsey’s powerful and poignant composition, was her best-known song.
In the late 1940s her recording career reached new heights as record stores couldn’t keep enough stock of her albums. Then in 1950 she was the first gospel singer to perform in Carnegie Hall. Some in gospel music, however, criticized her for bringing jazz into the church along with hand-clapping and foot-stomping. In 1957 she sang at the Newport Folk Festival. John F. Kennedy had her sing at his inaugural ball.
In August 1956 Jackson met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. They convinced her to come to Montgomery, Alabama to do a fund-raising concert to support the bus boycott. In spite of death threats, Jackson went, her first major step in the Civil Rights Movement. She then toured throughout the deep South with Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy, raising funds for the movement and often singing just before the preachers spoke.
In spite of her fame, she was still the victim of racist practices and hate. When she tried to buy a home in white neighborhoods of Chicago she was steered away. After finally purchasing a home, her house was peppered with gunfire.
In 1963 she was at the March on Washington, singing “I Been ‘Buked, and I Been Scorned” just before Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. As Dr. King came to the end of the speech it was Jackson who prompted him to leave his prepared text when she said loudly, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” She also sang at Dr. King’s funeral. Jackson spoke of her hope in music that it could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country.”
“We Shall Overcome”:
“How I Got Over”: