Many years before Mahalia Jackson became known as the “Queen of Gospel,” she was a five-year-old orphan living with her aunt and eleven other relatives in a small house in New Orleans. She worked through most of her upbringing and did not receive a public school education. Despite these hardships, she found her passion for music and religion at an early age. She loved to sing for her church, and her family supported her dreams with predictions that she would one day sing for royalty. Little did they know these predictions would come true.
Influenced by singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Enrico Caruso, Jackson sang gospel music in a soulful and physically energized way that captured the attention of her audience. She toured rigorously throughout the gospel circuit for over fourteen years with acclaimed composer Thomas Dorsey, and was signed to several record labels along the way. Her breakout success came in 1948 with the song “Move On Up a Little Higher,” which sold more than eight million copies. Stores literally struggled to keep the record in stock. Mahalia Jackson rode this success all the way to the top, performing at Carnegie Hall, the Ed Sullivan Show, and even President Kennedy’s inaugural ball. Harry Belafonte proclaimed her as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States.”
There is no doubt that Mahalia Jackson understood the responsibility that was coupled with this power. For the last ten years of her life, she dedicated herself to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement. She became good friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, despite receiving numerous death threats, sang at several of his rallies. She sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” before Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” and she sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” at his funeral. Jackson devoted her time, money, and spirit to furthering the cause of Dr. King’s movement, and even served as a mentor for many of those who would carry the torch for future generations. Aretha Franklin was one of her students. Perhaps her proudest contribution was the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foundation that she established in order to help young people to attend college, an opportunity that she was never afforded, even despite her great success.
In many ways, Dr. King and Mahalia Jackson shared the same dream of a more harmonious and tolerant America. His powerful oratory and her energized, passionate vocal performances captured the eyes and ears of a nation, forcing the issues of the day and pressing a revolution forward. Both shared the same faith that they could serve as a catalyst for a more just and enlightened future. The results of their struggle are now written in America’s history books, although many would argue that there is still much work to be done. Mahalia Jackson did not stop at just breaking the mold for African-American musicians, she broke the mold for all citizens of color. Her voice resonates in the hearts of countless souls around the globe, and her legacy of grace, pride and perseverance will inspire change for generations to come.