Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) was known as the “Queen of Gospel” and “the single most powerful Black woman in the United States.”
But Jackson used her legendary voice and strong influence for more than advancing her singing career. She was an advocate for civil rights from the earliest days of the movement. And while some like Martin Luther King Jr. were speaking truth to power, Jackson was singing it.
Jackson first met King in 1956 at the National Baptist Convention. The civil rights movement was about to ramp up and gain its first serious, nationwide attention, and King contacted Jackson just a few months later to ask for her help. He was planning a rally to raise money for the Montgomery bus boycott and wanted Jackson to sing at the rally—not only to raise funds but also 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 reached its goal with the city finally agreeing to end segregation on its buses.
But the work of the civil rights movement was far from done, and 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. And 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.”
Jackson was also 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, on Jan. 27, 1972, Jackson died. Her protégée Aretha Franklin sang the very same song at Jackson’s funeral that Jackson had performed at Dr. King’s.
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.”