Remembering singer Mahalia Jackson, whose voice helped guide the civil rights movement
February is Black History Month. Here, an HG contributor celebrates the legacy of Mahalia Jackson, a groundbreaking gospel singer and activist involved in the civil rights movement.
We love Louisiana for its slow, sizzling days, its innumerable inventions, and its unforgettable historical figures—from our Original Hot Sauce, to jazz, to Madam C.J. Walker and Louis Armstrong. But another southern heavy hitter we must celebrate, one who greatly contributed to the mainstream appeal of gospel music and aided the civil rights movement, is Mahalia Jackson.
Often, America’s will to do right is muted by greed and injustices like racism and misogyny. But gospel music, the hopeful descendant of the spirituals enslaved Black folks would wail, has always been there to comfort us. And like Mahalia Jackson, it is inseparable from Black history.
She was born Mahala Jackson in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1911, and like many of the powerhouse vocalists who came after her, she was vocally trained in a Baptist church. After Mahala’s mother passed away when she was 6 years old, she went to live with her devout Christian aunt. Her family’s financial struggles resulted in Jackson leaving school in the fourth grade to help out at home. (This was a norm at the time—my Louisiana-born great grandfather was born in 1912 and dropped out of school in the third grade to generate funds for his family.) But this harsh reality didn’t halt Mahala’s budding dream of becoming a singer.
Mahala, who became “Mahalia” as a professional vocalist, took in the sounds of her environment when crafting her own musical approach. Though she remained dedicated to gospel music for her entire life, she couldn’t help but be influenced by jazz, the sexy new genre taking over New Orleans. Musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, who is credited with first arranging jazz, helped bring the lively musical blend to the nation’s attention. That style, as well as the music of blues singer Bessie Smith, inspired a young Mahalia Jackson.
The songstress relocated to Chicago in her late teens in hopes of becoming a nurse, but she made money working as a maid and doing various odd jobs. Still, she continued pursuing her passion by singing at the Greater Salem Baptist Church. Her rich, vibrating voice dazzled clergy and lay members alike, and by the mid 1930s, she was singing by herself for church programs across the country. Mahalia’s first taste of mild fame came in 1947/1948, with the release of “Move On Up A Little Higher.”The single sold over a million copies and was even played on the radio alongside secular songs. The crossover success of “Move On Up A Little Higher” created a lane for other gospel acts that came much later, including The Clark Sisters (“You Brought the Sunshine”) and BeBe & CeCe Winans (“Addictive Love“).
When Jackson performed to an integrated audience at Carnegie Hall in 1950—the first gospel singer to perform on that stage—adoration for the singer grew. She was soon the main performer at the first First Negro Gospel Music Festival, where she sang her Savior’s praises in front of an unsegregated audience. That opportunity opened the door for more performances, and Mahalia toured the world (according to her obituary in the New York Times, she was especially loved by Israel and France) and frequently made television appearances. A decade after her show at Carnegie Hall, she sang at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
Mahalia Jackson lived the gospel that she sang about, making her contralto voice heard during the civil rights movement.
She served hearty meals of meat, potato salad, beans, and cornbread to the poor. She admonished Black churchgoers for only discussing spiritual matters and not doing the work required to make the world a better place.
Intense racism plagued her, though she had become an international star. When she moved into a white neighborhood in Chicago, someone shot through a window in her home. This struck no fear in her heart but only made her pursue social justice with more vigor. The New York Times reported that she once said, “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.”
By the 1970s, Mahalia’s health was fading. She toured and traveled when possible and even gave one of her best remembered performances with Louis Armstrong despite her battle with heart problems and diabetes.
Gospel music aims to encapsulate the conscience of America. Historically, it soothes us in times of tension and uncertainty.
Gospel is pure. Created to honor the Highest Source, it calls on every part of you. The pianos, tambourines, and drums guide the voice, hands, feet, and core of the Black body. Gospel music isn’t exclusionary—there are plenty of people who aren’t Black who have added to praise and worship sessions. But again, like Mahalia Jackson herself, gospel is our Black history.