When you’re married to a singer like I am, you want to know who their influences were. Who did they listen to when they were developing their “voice” and which singers inspired them? Who did they most admire and learn from? I asked my husband these questions one day, and the answer might surprise you. He said the one he listened to the most was Mahalia Jackson, the iconic Queen of Gospel Music. He used to play her records (yes, records) night after night until her music was deep down in his soul. Even today, he’ll start singing one of her songs and recall the powerful impact it had on him then. And still does.
Mahalia had that kind of impact on a lot of people, and one of them was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of whom she was a loyal supporter and his favorite opening act. Mahalia accompanied Dr. King on many stages at civil rights events around the country. She also became a close friend to him and his wife, Coretta Scott King. One of the most significant platforms for Mahalia took place on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington where Dr. King had invited his friend to perform prior to his speech. There, at Dr. King’s request, she sang the Black spiritual song, “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” and her soul-stirring “How I Got Over.”
What happened next was the heartfelt and heart-rending delivery of the famous message that we all know and love: Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But that speech might not ever have happened, had it not been for Mahalia. Since she had been with Dr. King at many of his prior speaking engagements, she had heard the theme of the “dream” in his talks. As he stood to address the crowd of more than 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial that day, the message prepared by his speechwriter and revised and reviewed by Dr. King sat ready on the podium. Dr. King began to speak that message, and when there was a pause, Mahalia shouted, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!” Dr. King took that prepared message and set it aside to instead deliver his historic speech, improvising and speaking extemporaneously, straight from the heart.
In January 1964, Dr. King acknowledged Mahalia Jackson’s role and the impact of it: “When I got up to speak, I was already happy,” he wrote. “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.” The next time you hear these beloved words: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream,” you can say a silent thank you to the marvelous Mahalia Jackson.
When Mahalia died in 1972 at the age of 60, her friend Coretta Scott King stated that “the causes of justice, freedom, and brotherhood have lost a real champion whose dedication and commitment knew no midnight.” Indeed, her impact on generations lives on.
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