October 26, 1911:
On this day the Queen of Gospel was born.
Mahalia Jackson (October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972) was an American gospel singer. Possessing a contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel”. She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.
Jackson played an important role during the civil rights movement. In August 1956, she met Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., at the National Baptist Convention. A few months later, both King and Abernathy contacted her about coming to Montgomery, Alabama, to sing at a rally to raise money for the bus boycott. They also hoped she would inspire the people who were getting discouraged with the boycott.
Despite death threats, Jackson agreed to sing in Montgomery. Her concert was on December 6, 1956. By then, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Browder v. Gayle that bus segregation was unconstitutional. In Montgomery, the ruling was not yet put into effect, so the bus boycott continued. At this concert she sang “I’ve Heard of a City Called Heaven“, “Move On Up a Little Higher” and “Silent Night“. There was a good turnout at the concert and they were happy with the amount of money raised. However, when she returned to the Abernathy’s home, it had been bombed. The boycott finally ended on December 21, 1956, when federal injunctions were served, forcing Montgomery to comply with the court ruling.
King and Abernathy continued to protest segregation. In 1957, they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The first major event sponsored by the SCLC was the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 1957, the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. From this point forward, Jackson appeared often with King, singing before his speeches and for SCLC fundraisers. In a 1962 SCLC press release, he wrote she had “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”. Jesse Jackson said when King called on her, she never refused, traveling with him to the deepest parts of the segregated South.
At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Jackson performed “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned”, before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Toward the end of the speech, he departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme “I have a dream”, prompted by Jackson’s cry: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Jackson said that she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”. She also contributed financially to the movement.