Mahalia Jackson, the "Queen of Gospel," was born 101 years ago today. Harry Belafonte once called her "the single most powerful black woman in the United States," and she used her legendary voice and her strong influence for more than just a singing career.
Mahalia Jackson, "Queen of the Gospel Singers," practices a new song in her Chicago apartment (Photo: Edward Kitch/AP/dapd)
Jackson became an advocate for civil rights in the earliest days of the U.S. movement. While others like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy fought by speaking, Jackson fought by singing – and more.
Jackson met Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956 at the National Baptist Convention. It was a time when the Civil Rights Movement was about to ramp up and gain its first serious, nationwide attention. King contacted Jackson just a few months after the convention to ask for her help. He was planning a rally to raise money for the Montgomery bus boycott, and he wanted Jackson to sing there – both to help with fund raising, and to raise the spirits of the attendees. Jackson agreed, singing "I've Heard of a City Called Heaven," "Silent Night" and "Move On Up a Little Higher."
Two weeks after the rally, the Montgomery bus boycott achieved success, as the city finally ended segregation on its buses. But the work of the Civil Rights Movement, far from being done, was just beginning. Jackson continued to work closely with King, traveling with him to the areas of the South where segregation was most deeply entrenched. She sang before many of his speeches and performed at fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was there at one of the movement's highest points – the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. There, Jackson sang "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned."
Mahalia Jackson was also a part of one of the bleakest moments for the Civil Rights Movement: the funeral of Dr. King, where she sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
Just four years later, Jackson herself died, and her protégée Aretha Franklin sang the very same song at her funeral. Decades have passed, but Mahalia Jackson is still remembered as a shining beacon for the Civil Rights Movement – one whose music truly did, as she hoped it would, "break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country."
Written by Linnea Crowther