As the “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson sang all over the world, performing with the same passion at the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy that she exhibited when she sang at fundraising events for the African American freedom struggle. A great champion of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King called her “a blessing to me… [and] a blessing to Negroes who have learned through [her] not to be ashamed of their heritage” (King, 10 January 1964).
Jackson was born in New Orleans on 26 October 1911. Her father worked three jobs and her mother, a maid, died when Jackson was young. Raised in a devout Baptist family, Jackson grew up singing in choirs. She moved to Chicago at the age of 16 and continued to sing in storefront churches and toured with a gospel quintet. Jackson released her first album in 1934, but it was her 1947 album, “Move on Up a Little Higher,” that brought Jackson fame. The album sold eight million copies and Jackson quickly became an international celebrity, performing sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall and later hosting her own radio and television shows in Chicago.
Already an icon, Jackson met Ralph Abernathy and King at the 1956 National Baptist Convention. King later asked if she could perform in Montgomery for the foot soldiers of the newly successful bus boycott. On 17 May 1957, she joined King on the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, singing at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. She subsequently appeared often with King, singing before his speeches and for Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) fundraisers. In a 1962 SCLC press release, King wrote that Jackson “has appeared on numerous programs that helped the struggle in the South, but now she has indicated that she wants to be involved on a regular basis” (SCLC, 10 October 1962).
Jackson performed “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” before King took the podium at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Later expressing his gratitude to Jackson, King wrote: “When I got up to speak, I was already happy. I couldn’t help preaching. Millions of people all over this country have said it was my greatest hour. I do not know, but if it was, you, more than any single person helped to make it so” (King, 10 January 1964).
Jackson said she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country” (Whitman, “Mahalia Jackson”). In addition to the inspiration that her singing provided the movement, Jackson also contributed financially.
After King’s assassination, Jackson honored his last request by singing “Precious Lord” at his funeral. When Jackson herself died of heart failure in 1972 at age 60, Coretta Scott King commented that “the causes of justice, freedom, and brotherhood have lost a real champion whose dedication and commitment knew no midnight” (Whitman, “Mahalia Jackson”).