Mahalia Jackson made us see that we all have something so pure in us that we can touch the world and create understanding and joy where there was none before.
Born Mahala Jackson on October 26th, 1911 as the third child of Charity and Johnny Jackson, Mahalia grew up in a three room house, shared by 13 family members and one dog. Already born into poverty, Mahalia was orphaned by 5 and raised by a strict Aunt, and little Mahalia began working from sunup to sundown. I am sure Mahalia would have loved to go to school, but unfortunately that was not an option for her. Fortunately Mahalia was involved in Church and loved to sing, her little voice could be heard around the block at church.
Like so many other Southern Blacks of the time, Mahalia was part of the Great Migration North in search of jobs. She went to Chicago at 16 to train as a nurse. Being heavily involved in the church (her father was a Baptist Minister) she joined a new church in her new city and their Choir, and began performing. Mahalia is a great, so in little time she began touring and working with Gospel composers and other artists. Success was not immediate, nor could it be at that time; Mahalia was a black artist, in a black genre during the depression. She took jobs as a laundress and beautician before her career took off.
In 1947 at the age of 36, her first big hit was "Move On Up a Little Higher" selling millions, and becoming the biggest gospel single in history. A performance at Carnegie Hall in 1950 followed. In 1952 she toured Europe and in 1954 CBS gave her her own gospel program. The 1950s saw Mahalia at the peak of Fame Internationally. While Gospel was not new in the Black Community, this kind of success through gospel was. In fact, the Grammy Awards created the Gospel category for her, based on her incredible, international achievements.
The 1950's, when Mahalia was at the height of her fame and earnings power which she could not have imagined growing up, Mahalia chose to use her personal power and her big heart to help Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. In 1956, despite death threats, Mahalia went to Montgomery, Alabama for a concert to raise money for the movement. These were violent times when Civil Rights Leaders were being attacked and their homes bombed, but 15 days after the concert, the Federal Government made Alabama follow the law and desegregate buses. Mahalia regularly sang before Dr Martin Luther King Jr. took the stage and joined him on some incredibly challenging trips, this was her way of lending support and attention.
Mahalia's popularity only grew. Mahalia was chosen to sing for John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. In the famous March on Washington in 1963, Mahlia sang right before her friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the stage to deliver one of the most famous speeches in history, the "I Have a Dream" Speech. A little known fact of that speech is that Mahalia yelled out to him towards the end "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" at which point the speech took an incredible and memorable turn where 'I have a dream' is repeated as a punctuation to the story.
She is the voice of a time in our country that has meaning recognized around the world. She is a talent that delivered some of the most important political moments in our nation's history. She also enjoyed an incredible and celebrated career: Lifetime Grammy & Hall of Fame Awards, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Walk on the Hollywood Hall of Fame, a theater in New Orleans named after her, performed in movies and TV. Mahalia most importantly teaches us that being commercially successful allows you to run with your passions and help be a voice to bring good to the world.