Mahalia Jackson: The Queen Queen Queen of Gospel

Biography: Introduction

Music is a form of expression that has been around for as long as we know. Music is a vital part of life because of its ability to affect our emotions. The artists that create music, therefore, become important figures. Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer, is one of those important figures. Not only did Jackson inspire many through her uplifting music, but she also used her music to create change. Mahalia Jackson’s status as a leader of the African American community is proved through her help to change not only music but also the status of African Americans through her uplifting songs and activism throughout her life.

Biography: Childhood

Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1912. She was named Mahala Jackson by her parents Charity Clark and Johnny Jackson. Mahalia had a rough childhood. She was born with the medical condition of ‘bow legs’ and was unable to receive the surgery to fix it. She lived in a shack along with her extensive family. She also lost her mother at the tender age of six and was forced to live with her aunt who made Mahalia do all the house chores instead of attending school. Because of this upbringing, music was an important aspect of her life from a young age as the only time she would enjoy herself was when she was singing. Mahalia would sing with her church choir every Sunday. 

Although Mahalia had a very religious upbringing she was influenced by both secular and non secular artists just the same. A lot of her early musical influence was from the church that she attended but she also was greatly influenced by Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Ma Rainey. Bessie Smith was an African American jazz and blues vocalist in the hugely popular in the early 20’s. She was one of the highest paid performers of her time. Ida Cox was an African American jazz singer in the 20’s as well. She as well known for singing music for and about African American women’s struggles and had many different pseudonym to protect her identity when producing these sometimes racially themed songs especially during the time period of the 20’s when racism was very prevalent. Lastly, Ma Rainy also known as the “Mother of Blues” was the first popular stage performer to incorporate authentic blues into her repertoire. The height of her popularity was also in the 20’s. All three of these nonsecular singers had a great influence on Mahalia’s music knowledge and later her music style. Mahalia incorporated more free movements and rhythm into her music and performances than traditional gospel.

Biography: Career

When she was 16, she decided to follow her passion of music and move to Chicago where she joined Greater Salem Baptist Church. There she was selected to sing as a soloist. Jackson also sang with The Johnson Brothers which was one of the earliest professional gospel groups. She started her solo career in the 1930’s and started to receive public attention. People were attracted to her voice because it was soulful and she was a charismatic performer. Jackson chose to only sing religious music and perform at reputable venues. Her first hit, “Move On Up a Little Higher” came out in 1948 and was instantly popular due to its use of “vamp,” which is a repeated phrase that provides a base for solo improvisation. Some of her other hits include “Silent Night,” “I Believe,” “Just over the Hill,” “When I Wake Up in Glory,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “I Can Put My Trust in Jesus.” 

When Jackson had the opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall in 1950 and began to put on annual shows there, her fame exploded. She began to sell millions of copies of her records. She performed for President Kennedy in 1961 and made a notable appearance in the Newport Jazz Festival. Most importantly, though, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. In 1963, she sang the African-American Spiritual “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” at the Washington Monument right before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She is now a world icon, known notably for her beautiful voice, but also for her inspirational music, and commitment to social change.

Biography: Resilience

Her success was not easy and did not come without struggles. As an African American Women, Mahalia faced many challenges during her career. For one, in her personal life she divorced her first husband, was born with ‘bow legs’, was forced to drop out of school at an early age, and died of heart failure. She also faced struggles as an African American women. Jackson was subject to the same unfair treatment that African Americans were subject too. For example, Jackson lived during the time of Jim Crow Laws which prevented African Americans from using the same facilities like bathrooms and water fountains as their white counterparts, forbade them from going certain places that their white counterparts could go, and other demeaning rules; because of these societal rules, Jackson was not allowed to perform at all venues even though she did break down barriers as the first African American gospel singer to perform in Carnegie Hall. She also struggle in her career as it was not always successful. Her first record did not sell well and therefore it was a while before she recorded again. Despite these setbacks, Mahalia was still able to become one of the most well known and loved gospel singers known today.  

Jackson used her music to uplift the African American community.  She was able to reach millions through her concert performances, and radio and television appearances.. As Whitman explains, President Nixon explained that she “sings the Gospel  message of freedom” which became “metaphors of black freedom” for the African-American community. People found strength in her songs. Jackson started singing gospel as a girl in a small church in New Orleans and never stopped. She remained a positive influence by sticking to her values and only performing uplifting gospel music to inspire the African-American community during hard times. In this way, Jackson became a leader in the African-American community, inspiring others to have resilience through hard times like time before the civil rights movement. 

Not only did Jackson’s lyrics in her music uplift the community but they exemplified the struggle that African Americans were experiencing. Jackson continued to sing influential music like her song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. As Irene Jackson Brown puts it, the lyrics ask important questions like “Why should I feel discouraged” Why should I feel in pain? Why should I feel lonely when clouds arise, when I have trouble and I long for heaven and home? His eye is on the sparrow and I know he is watching over me” (Terkel).  These questions describe the sentiment in the African-American community at the time. Because of the civil rights movement, African-Americans were facing prejudice and discrimination and yet this song tells them that it is going to be okay because God (the sparrow) is watching over them. The African-American community turned to God for their hope and their light which is why gospel music was such an important aspect of their lives and these lyrics helped inspire the African American community to keep going through hard times. Mahalia Jackson’s gospel lyrics inspired the African-American community to keep fighting for their rights. 

Mahalia Jackson not only inspired the community with her music but also exemplified the strength of the community through her live performances. Jackson’s music was even more influential in her live concert performances where her commitment to the lyrics and message could be seen. As Mr. Heilbut explains, “Singing these and other songs to black audiences, Miss Jackson as a woman on fire, whose combs flew out of her hair as she performed. She moved her listeners to dancing, to shouting, to ecstasy. – Whenever Mahalia Jackson poured the power and the majesty of her conic into one of her favorites songs, “I Believe”, there could never be any doubt that she meant it,  meant every word” (Terkel). The passion and commitment that went into Mahalia’s performance was very obvious to anyone watching and this inspired many. They saw a strong African-American woman with a beautiful voice singing about hope and they were inspired to keep fighting for their rights. Even white audiences were inspired by Jackson’s performances because they could sense the strength emanating from Jackson herself through her music and a strong black woman is a different image than the white community is usually presented with. In this way, Jackson exemplified the strength of all African Americans. 

Jackson shows her amazing leadership in her attempts to not only fight for the rights of African American community but for unity in the United States. As she herself explained, “I have hopes that my singing will break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country” (Whiteman). Mahalia not only chose to fight the for the rights of her people but also to bring the country together. This was her goal in her music and she passed that same goal along to her role in the civil rights movement. Her performances brought together African American and white people. In this way, like her friend Martin Luther King, she fought in a peaceful yet demanding way to not only achieve her rights but also to make peace in the country. 

Jackson’s resistance to white dominated society is shown through her participation in the civil rights movement. One of Jackson’s most influential moments is her performance of “I Been Buked and I Been Scorned” before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream Speech” during the famous March on Washington. Jackson inspired millions of people there and on television in her awe-inspiring perforce and as Whitman puts it the song “came as much from her heart as from her vocal chords”. Although Jackson had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement for over a decade, this pinnacle moment and march was a turning point in the movement. Millions of people participated in the march/protest and it was one of the most important because it got the message across to the political leaders of the time that the leaders of the civil rights movement were serious about getting equal rights for African Americans. Many people described Jackson’s performance as the awe-inspiring, and she set the mood for Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream” speech.

Mahalia Jackson’s contribution to the civil rights movement went way beyond her singing at the March on Washington and revealed her inner resilience for the cause. Jackson meet Martin Luther King when she became very active in the moment and they became great friends. They traveled all over the South together, her singing, and him speaking. She not only lifted the spirit of King’s audiences but even helped him deliver his most famous speech, the “I Have A Dream” speech. As Hansen explains in his article, during King’s speech, “Nearby, off to one side, Mahalia Jackson shouted: ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’ – He said, ‘I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream’. And he was off, delivering some of the most beloved lines in American history”. The fact that Jackson was an inspiration to even Dr. King shows her importance as a resilient figure.

Biography: Legacy

Mahalia Jackson became an international star and was not only performing often even on television but also was touring all over the world. Towards the end of the 60’s, though, Mahalia’s health had started to decline and she was hospitalized many times. She retired from her political career and gave her final concert in Munich, Germany in 1971. Jackson died at the age of 60 on January 27th, 1972. Thousands of people attended both of her memorials and her former student Aretha Franklin performed in her honor. 

Although she did not live a long life, Mahalia Jackson accomplished many things during her time. She was the first African American gospel woman singer to perform in Carnegie Hall and she also performed for the inauguration of John F Kennedy. One of her most famous performances was at the March on Washington where she performed “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous I Have a Dream Speech. She also sang at Dr. Kings memorial and published her own autobiography, Movin on Up. Jackson was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1978, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Lastly, she was the first gospel singer to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

Many raving reviews of Jackson reveals her effect on other’s lives. As Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “when there is no gap between what you say and who you are, what you say and what you believe — when you can express that in song, it is all the more powerful” (Glinton). Jackson was a great person to look up to because she knew who she was, did what she said she would, and never strayed from that. She has been acknowledged by many other important figures and musicians as an upstanding person who was resilient through all hard times and stood for everything that was right in the world.


Brown, Irene Jackson. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Interview by Deborah Williams. NPR, edited by Studs Terkel, 3 Sept. 2000, Accessed 22 Nov. 2016.

 Clinton, Sonari. “Mahalia Jackson: Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” NPR, 8 Feb. 2010, Accessed 22 Nov. 2016.

 The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Mahalia Jackson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.

 Hansen, Drew. “Mahalia Jackson, and King’s Improvisation.” The New York Times, 27 Aug. 2013, Accessed 22 Nov. 2016.

 Sacks, Oliver. “The Power of Music.” Brain a Journal of NeurologyThe Oxford Press,

 Slave Songbook : Origin of the Negro Spiritual. PBS.

 Whitman, Alden. “Mahalia Jackson, Gospel Singer, and a Civil Rights Symbol, Dies.” The New York TimesThe New York Times on the Web, Accessed 22 Nov. 2016. Obituary



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