Mahalia Jackson, known as the “Queen of Gospel,” died fifty years ago today on January 27, 1972. Born to a poor family in New Orleans, she found her calling at Mount Mariah Baptist Church, where she began singing in the choir. After moving to Chicago she met the famous Gospel choir leader Thomas Dorsey and began to tour. Gradually her reputation spread throughout the country, and indeed the world. She became the first Gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Despite her fame, she constantly confronted prejudice. In the 1950s Martin Luther King Jr. invited her to help raise money for the Montgomery Bus boycott. From that time on she was always available whenever King called. Sometimes, when feeling low, he would ask her to sing his favorite song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a song she would later sing at his funeral. She hoped her music would “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people of this country.”
In fact, Jackson played a significant role in King’s most famous oration. She was at his side in 1963, performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the famous March on Washington. As King approached the conclusion of his written speech, Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” At this point, King departed from his speech to deliver the historic lines that became a signature of his legacy.
“After you sing the blues, you still have the blues. I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free.”