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Mahalia Jackson is considered the greatest gospel singer ever…and, when your competition for that title includes Aretha Franklin, Shirley Caeser, and Yolanda Adams, you know you're mega-talented. (But, after all, the woman's debut album was called "The World's Greatest Gospel Singer." She knew how good she was.) (Source)
Jackson was also a civil rights activist who hoped her music would "break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country." (Source)
Her performance repertoire included gospel songs like "We Shall Overcome" and "I Can Put My Trust in Jesus." Despite pressure from her record labels and her first husband, Jackson refused to ever sing any secular music. She was all about God.
Jackson performed throughout her life, almost all the way up to her death in 1972. She maintained a rigorous international schedule, singing in Europe, India, and for John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball. Another singer, Harry Belafonte, called her the most powerful African American woman in the world—making her the Oprah of the '60s. (Source)
Her illustrious career aside, Jackson was the unlikely catalyst for "I Have a Dream."
When Martin Luther King, Jr. took the podium to deliver his speech, Jackson was in the audience, having concluded her performance. She had chosen the song "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned" to entertain the crowd of 200,000.
When King first spoke the words "I have a dream," Jackson shouted from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" (Source)
King definitely heard her.
You know what happened next. MLK went off talking about his dream, wowing the crowd with some words that could have been straight out of a gospel song. If you listen to the speech, you'll notice that King gets louder and more powerful in the dream section. After a slightly nervous start, ignoring his notes ignited his fire.
Many musicians dream of inspiring a movement, but Jackson actually did it. Take that, Live Aid. (Source)