Mahalia Jackson sang all of her songs with a legendary passion and intensity that often drove audiences to tears, and she sang from a place of deep religious commitment. Gospel music was the only music that she ever wanted to sing. "How I Got Over," now a gospel classic, tells the story of one of the most iconic moments in the Civil Rights Movement, but it also tells the story of Jackson's own struggles, commitments, and musical brilliance.
Mahalia Jackson was born Mahala Jackson in a poor part of New Orleans in 1911, in the depths of Jim Crow-era segregation. She went to segregated, lousy schools, and she was forced to drop out in fourth grade in order to work to support her family, according to her website. Her first job was working in the home of a white family for $2.00 per week. Her mother died while she was still young, and Jackson went to live with a strict aunt (her father, a Baptist pastor with a different wife and children, did not want to take her). At fifteen, Jackson was kicked out by her aunt for rebelling against the aunt's strict rules, and in 1927, at only sixteen, Jackson boarded a train for Chicago in hopes of finding better work up north (Barbara Kramer, Mahalia Jackson, 25).
Riding north in a cold, segregated train car with another relative, Jackson became one of hundreds of thousands of southern African Americans to seek work and a better lifestyle in northern cities like Chicago in what is now called the Great Migration. She established herself on Chicago's South Side, which was still a very segregated place but offered more job opportunities and less racist violence than the home she had left. It was also the site of a thriving and successful black community (and the later birth place of important artistic movements including the Chicago blues and the Black Arts Movement). In Chicago, Jackson heard Bessie Smith for the first time, and began to sing with a gospel choir at the Greater Salem Baptist Church. Jackson sang house parties, church services and funerals all through the Great Depression, and in 1932 she met the great gospel singer Thomas A. Dorsey. By the mid-1930s, the young singer had launched a career and found herself touring the United States on the Baptist Church circuit (yes, there was a Baptist Church circuit). Her success surprised her, but those around her could not resist the incredible draw of her versatile, emotional singing style.
Even as early as the 1930s, something else important was unfolding: the revolutionary activist movement led by black Americans demanding legal equality and justice all over the country, especially in the segregated South. Jackson was a quick convert to the causes of the movement, as she had herself been hounded by racism at every turn. Even when she was a world-famous gospel singer and had a record deal with Columbia Records in the 1950s, she continued to experience the basest forms of discrimination. Jackson was turned away at lunch counters in the South and blocked from buying a home in a white neighborhood in Chicago (Kramer 74). Sometimes her fame highlighted the ways that racism was still deeply ingrained in white people, Northern and Southern.
"When I'm on the stage and on television and working with white people, they just hug me and love me, and say I'm so wonderful and I'm so great," she once told renowned radio interviewer Studs Terkel. "And then, when I'm walking down the street like an ordinary citizen, they don't recognize me. And when I go into the department store in the South, they—I can't get a sandwich. I can't get a bottle of pop. I've got to stand. I can't even get a cab. And I'm just the Mahalia Jackson that they got through saying how wonderful I am" (Kramer 69).
The movement for Civil Rights had one of its first big victories in 1954 with the Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, now often known as just Brown v. Board, which declared the idea of "separate but equal" schooling to be unconstitutional and called for the prompt desegregation of all public schools. The landmark decision noted that separate schools (which were never actually equal) fostered "feeling[s] of inferiority" in black children. Jackson observed all the action with anticipation, ready to throw her own energy into the struggle (and recalling her own childhood experiences in separate-but-unequal schools).
In 1956, Jackson met the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a Baptist pastor deeply involved in the Civil Rights struggle. He invited her to Montgomery, Alabama, later that year to sing a benefit for the Montgomery bus boycott, a massive organized protest against the city's segregated bus system. For 381 days, African Americans refused to use the Montgomery bus system, making it practically and economically difficult for the buses to continue to run. (A key name here is Rosa Parks, the activist who refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus and was arrested, thus kicking off the boycott in 1955 with a clear message.) It was in Montgomery that Jackson first met Martin Luther King, Jr., a passionate young preacher and leader who shared Jackson's deep belief in the power of Christ's gospel to call for social change (Kramer 73-74). Although the boycott officially ended just weeks after Jackson's concert, the struggle intensified: Abernathy's family home was bombed, and King left Montgomery to continue traveling the country helping local communities organize similar protests. In 1957, both leaders were a part of founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a coalition of anti-racist Christian activists committed to non-violent tactics.
Jackson sang gospel with a deep conviction that the words of Jesus called for justice for all. Even when the songs were about hard times, the lyrics and tone of gospel almost always suggested transcendence, getting through and getting over. The music conveyed a sense of hope and ultimate triumph. For some, this musical triumph was about the hope offered by the church and by the possibility of going to heaven. But for others, the musical triumph could also represent triumph in struggles waged on earth. Through the participation of singers like Jackson and preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr., the righteousness of gospel was used to evoke the righteousness of Civil Rights activism; the hopeful tone of the songs represented the hope that the movement for racial justice could succeed on a massive scale. And what better music to represent this than music that began in the segregated and oppressed South in one of the most important places of refuge for the African-American community, the church?
As Civil Rights activists gained traction with the Supreme Court, the legislature, and even the president (Kennedy, an ally to many Civil Rights causes, was elected in 1960), Mahalia Jackson's booming voice provided a gospel soundtrack at many of the key events. She attended the SCLC's 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, the occasion of Martin Luther King's first national address. She fundraised for the Freedom Riders in 1961, and sang at SCLC fundraisers in New York and L.A. In Chicago, she organized a massive fundraiser, reaching out to musicians, volunteers, and even Mayor Richard Daley, who gave Jackson a free venue to hold the event in 1963. She also believed that her music itself could help the cause.
"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 told a reporter (Kramer 98). She traveled to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1963 to participate in the groundbreaking March on Washington for Freedom and Equality. At Martin Luther King's request, Jackson sang "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned" just before King took the stage to give his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves of the old Confederacy, King prophetically began his speech by saying "I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."
Although a lot of people think that MLK's speech was mostly about an idealistic dream of black and white children holding hands, most of the speech discussed the brutal inequalities the movement was still struggling against and presented a call to action: "We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating 'For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The speech left the audience of 250,000 wild with inspiration. Mahalia Jackson followed it up with a rousing performance of "How I Got Over." The song was one of Jackson's favorites to perform, because it told a story of personal survival and spiritual transcendence. It was written in 1941 by the gospel singer Clara Ward, herself a survivor of the deep repression and humiliation of Jim Crow. Some say that she was inspired to write the song after a particularly cruel incident of racist violence. "Tell me how we got over Lord/ Had a mighty hard time coming on over/ You know my soul look back and wonder/ How did we make it over?" Jackson sang. The song told the story shared by so many at the march, a story of surprising resilience in the face of many years of marginalization. This struggle was shared by the black community over the centuries since enslavement first began, and it was the same struggle that united people at the 1963 March on Washington (see Shmoop's discussion of the controversial elements of the march to find out more about where people were not united).
This struggle—against marginalization, unpaid work, violence, humiliation, and poverty—defined Jackson's own childhood and drove her musical intensity. "I'm gonna wear a diamond garment/ In that new Jerusalem, I'm gonna walk the streets of gold," she sang, paralleling King's dream that "one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice (…) that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Five years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in Memphis. It was a crushing blow to the Civil Rights Movement, especially to those who had dedicated themselves so thoroughly to non-violent tactics in the belief that they were the most effective way to change things. At King's funeral, Jackson performed "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." Coretta Scott King said, "I think she sang more beautifully than I had ever heard her sing before" (Kramer 109). Jackson was traumatized by King's death, and she was also becoming increasingly ill, dealing with heart problems and an untimely separation from her second husband. She went on touring, but she pulled away from Civil Rights activism and focused on charitable work and her church. (Civil Rights, meanwhile, took a new, more radical turn as organizers who were still angry about unchanging conditions for African Americans formed groups like the Black Panthers, seeking bottom-up instead of top-down change). In 1972, Mahalia Jackson died of heart failure at the age of 59. At her funeral, Coretta Scott King noted something her late husband had said of Jackson: "A voice like this comes, not once a century, but once a millennium."
Indeed, to this day Mahalia Jackson has no known parallel in gospel singing. Her influence goes beyond the power of her voice. She had an unusual ability to give her songs depth. When she sang, it wasn't just beautiful to listen to. It was about something, about personal struggle, about surviving oppression, and about resisting injustice on earth while also seeking to transcend injustice through religion. She made gospel famous all over the world, and she also made Civil Rights sound beautiful, possible, and imminent. As quoted in her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography, David Ritz wrote, "Her voice is a heartfelt express of all that is most human about us—our fears, our faith, our hope for salvation… Hope is the hallmark of Mahalia Jackson and the gospel tradition she embodies."