Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when more than a quarter million people converged in the then largest demonstration in the United States capital. It was a triumph of unity and a moment – like many revolutionary episodes – that seized on the power of song to help make sense of its gravitas. The diverse cast of voices on August 28, 1963 included Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary. However, it was gospel legend Mahalia Jackson who, at the request of Martin Luther King Jr., helped set the stage for among the world's greatest recordings: the "I Have a Dream" speech.
"If [Martin Luther] King gave the movement a vision, Mahalia Jackson gave it a voice," wrote history and culture scholar Craig Werner in A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America.
The inimitable voice of 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Mahalia Jackson resonated far and wide, her bracing soprano and interpretation of gospel making her a familiar name among black and white audiences. She found stardom without making secular songs, becoming the first gospel artist to sing at Carnegie Hall in 1950 and the host of her own Sunday evening show on CBS in 1954. She appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and sang at John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball in 1961. Yet, it was Jackson's singular contributions to the civil rights movement that placed her on the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963.
Jackson was introduced to King and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy at the 1955 National Baptist Convention meeting in Denver, where she offered her voice to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The following year, in 1956, Jackson performed "Move On Up a Little Higher" and "I've Heard of a City Called Heaven" during a rally in Montgomery, where two days later, a bomb exploded outside the bedroom where she had slept.
With performers like Jackson leading the charge, gospel became central to strengthening the civil rights movement. The lyrics often delivered double meanings and reaffirmed the importance of faith, while the music itself leveraged the energy of call and response, projected not only physical but also psychological strength, and encouraged solidarity. Music from the pulpit to the people helped elevate the spirit of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. And Mahalia Jackson provided the stirring soundtrack.
Before Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, Jackson sang "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned" at the request of Martin Luther King Jr. "That old spiritual was a touchstone for King, a channel of his almost mystical kinship with the slave forebears," noted writer Joseph E. Davis. "He was signaling that for all the civil religious trappings, he intended to read American history in the light of black history. You need to place that choice of song in the context of the early '60s; long before black power, he’s bringing black cultural forms out into the public square."
Following King at the Lincoln Memorial, Jackson sang "How I Got Over," a fiery coda to among the most pivotal moments in US history. “Her voice is a heartfelt expression of all that is most human about us — our fears, our faith, our hope for salvation,” David Ritz wrote in his liner notes for Mahalia Jackson: 16 Most Requested Songs. “Hope is the hallmark of Mahalia Jackson and the gospel tradition she embodies.” [pictured: 1962 Mahalia Jackson concert poster, on view in the touring Women Who Rock exhibit]
Mahalia Jackson is among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Roots of Rock and Roll exhibit in Cleveland, Ohio. Mahalia Jackson is also spotlighted in the traveling Women Who Rock exhibit.