Who was Mahalia Jackson? Real story of 'Queen of Gospel' who inspired Martin Luther King Jr's 'I Have a Dream' speech

Mahalia Jackson often accompanied Dr King on his rallies even to the most hostile parts of the country

                            Who was Mahalia Jackson? Real story of 'Queen of Gospel' who inspired Martin Luther King Jr's 'I Have a Dream' speech
Mahalia Jackson speaks as Martin Luther King looks on (Getty Images)

Martin Luther King Jr's 'I Have A Dream' speech has served as an inspiration to generations, but who was the woman who inspired the speech itself? Mahalia Jackson, also known as the 'Queen of Gospel', often lent her voice to the civil rights movement. In March 1963, it was Mahalia's urging "Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!" that led Martin Luther King to go off script and historically share his dream.

King and Jackson had a long-standing and loyal friendship. When Mahalia Jackson met Martin Luther King for the first time, she was already a renowned singer. She was invited to appear in Montgomery, Alabama, in support of the now-famous bus boycott that made Rosa Parks a household name. It was there that Jackson first met Dr Martin Luther King, Jr who she would steadfastly support from then on.


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Jackson was fiercely loyal to Dr King and she frequently accompanied him to perform at rallies and events. It has been speculated that it was during these rallies that Jackson understood more about King's dream and therefore asked him to share it. She even accompanied to some of the most hostile parts of the country including the segregated south. King, when he was feeling low or discouraged, would often call Jackson to hear her sing and have his spirits revived.

Dr Martin Luther King (Getty Images)

Mahalia Jackson, the granddaughter of an enslaved person, contributed to the Civil Rights movement not just with her talent but financially as well. She hoped that her music would help to break down barriers saying, “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." Jackson performed in front of a racially integrated audience at the prestigious Carnegie Hall and at John F Kennedy’s inaugural ball.

When it came time for King to choose a singer to perform at the March on Washington for jobs and reform, King requested Jackson to sing 'I Been Buked and I Been Scorned'. She performed soulfully to the 200,000 strong crowd, but her biggest contribution was not her powerful singing voice that day. King had been struggling with what to include in his speech, with so many aspects and issues to focus on. But when King took a pause during his speech, it was then that Mahalia Jackson changed history, shouting out to King to tell the crowd about his dream.

Mahalia Jackson (Getty Images)

King's friend and scriptwriter Clarence B Jones wrote about the moment in The Washington Post in 2011, “I see that what he does when he hears her shout that to him. He then takes the papers on the lectern and he moves the papers to the left. And then he grabs the lectern on the podium, so I turn to some unknown person next to me and I said, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church. He was speaking spontaneously and extemporaneously. His whole body language shifted, became more relaxed, and then as some baptist preachers do, he would take his right foot and started putting it up against his left leg, some preachers do that as they’re talking... and I said, ‘This man is going to preach now'."

The rest as they say is history, and Dr King himself acknowledged Jackson's part in creating it. In a letter to Jackson, Dr King wrote, "When I got up to speak, I was already happy. 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.”

To find out more on how Mahalia Jackson turned Dr King's dream into a reality, catch 'Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia' on Lifetime, Saturday, April 3 at 8/7c.

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