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Martin Luther King Jr. Day

MLK jr.

Today, we pay tribute to the visionary leader who dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice, equality, and unity.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to hundreds of thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  This speech, originally entitled “Normalcy—Never Again” by Dr. King, was changed in the moment of delivery by the urging of Mahalia Jackson, known as the Queen of Gospel Music, who shouted across to Dr. King in the midst of his speech, “tell ‘em about the dream, Martin. Tell ‘em about the dream.”

According to Dr. King’s former advisor and speechwriter, Dr. Clarence B. Jones, who had presented summary ideas to Dr. King for his speech at the March on Washington, and which Dr. King had incorporated as the beginning of his speech, when Mahalia Jackson encouraged Dr. King to “tell them about the dream,” Dr. King shifted his papers to the left , grabbed the two sides of the lectern, and launched into what became the most impassioned and memorable part of his speech…the extemporaneous articulation of his dreams for the future of America.

See the interview with Dr. Jones discussing this important moment in the speech here:


Who was Mahalia Jackson, that she could have such a significant influence on Dr. King?

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture provides an overview of Mahalia Jackson’s life and accomplishments:

“The woman who would one day be called the greatest gospel singer in the world was born in New Orleans on October 26, 1911. Her childhood home was a three-room house in the Black Pearl section of the city. It was a tiny space, home not only to little "Halie," and her mother and brother, but to assorted aunts and cousins, too. In total, thirteen people and a dog shared that home.”

“Mahalia's mother died when she was five, adding more hardship to her young life. She was raised by her Aunt "Duke," who allowed no secular records in the home and who treated Mahalia and her cousins harshly when they failed to keep the family home immaculate.”

“Mahalia began singing in church as a child. Quickly it became apparent that she had a tremendous talent and possessed a voice that was rich, strong and impressive. One family member said Mahalia would one day sing before royalty. Eventually, that came true.”

“After moving to Chicago in 1927 as a teenager during the Great Migration north, word of her amazing voice began to spread — first in local churches, and soon in churches across America. In 1948, she recorded "Move On Up a Little Higher" for Apollo records.

It was a spectacular success — groundbreaking, in fact, because no gospel song had ever achieved such sales on the secular side of the music industry. Stores across the nation scrambled to keep up with the demand for Mahalia Jackson's first and greatest hit.

The song propelled Jackson to worldwide celebrity; she became a force in radio and television, areas off-limits to African American musicians and entertainers. In 1954 she began hosting a popular Sunday night radio show for CBS. Her appearance in 1956 on the Ed Sullivan Show lifted gospel music from churches and revivals into mainstream American music, where it remains to this day.”

“She performed in the White House for President Eisenhower, sang at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, and travelled with Dr. King throughout the South, singing powerful gospel hymns before many of his speeches, including, at his request, a spiritual just before his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963.”

“Just as her family had predicted, she performed before royalty, singing at London's Royal Albert Hall when her first European concert tour brought her to England in the mid-1950s. During that tour she would also sing in France, Germany and Denmark.

Later international tours found Jackson performing before the royal family in Japan and meeting numerous heads of state such as Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India.

Jackson was frequently offered lucrative deals to sing in more popular secular styles, declining those offers, for the most part, to stay faithful to her gospel roots. Mahalia Jackson passed away in 1972, just a few months after her 60th birthday. Both Chicago and New Orleans honored her, with tens of thousands silently filing past her casket in tribute. It is estimated as many as 6,000 people attended her funeral service in Chicago; among them were Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald. At service's end, Aretha Franklin sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," which had become one of Mahalia Jackson's signature songs.”

“Gospel music historian Horace C. Boyer wrote that through her voice and personality Jackson enlightened people worldwide to "respect gospel music as an idiom distinct from classical black spirituals." True to the idea that the African American story is an American story, it is hard to imagine contemporary music without the influence of Mahalia Jackson. This point is underscored by her induction into the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in 1997.”

Mahalia Jackson and Dr. King first met at the National Baptist Convention in Alabama in 1956. Dr. King asked her if she could support his work there by singing and inspiring civil rights activists during the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.

This collaboration became an important friendship for Dr. King.  He would often call Ms. Jackson during periods of turmoil and emotional distress, asking her to sing for him.  She would sing gospels for him, providing fortitude and spiritual grounding during his years of leading the Civil Rights Movement, years punctuated by beatings, imprisonment, and persecution.  Mahalia Jackson was an important source of emotional and spiritual support for Dr. King, motivating him to move forward with the difficult and painful quest for human rights, dignity, and equality  for the oppressed peoples of the world despite the inevitable moments of despondency felt by the man who was the symbolic head of the movement that sought to disrupt American structures of racial hierarchy and power and to bring justice and opportunity to the millions of African Americans who had been systematically denied their most fundamental human and civil rights for centuries.

As an illustration of the seminal role that Mahalia Jackson played in rallying the audiences at Dr. King’s appearances during the Civil Rights Movement, please view this wonderful video clip of Mahalia singing “Joshua Fit/Fought the Battle of Jericho”  while Dr. King was delivering a church sermon during the Chicago Movement for Freedom:

As Dr. King noted during this performance: "I think I can say concerning this great Gospel singer in our midst, our dear friend, my great friend Mahalia Jackson, that a voice like this comes only once in a millennia."

The full text of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, with archival photos from that important event, can be found at the following website:


As you read this speech, please remember the significance of Mahalia Jackson as a friend, collaborator, and spiritual advisor to Dr. King, and her role in shifting the course of the “Normalcy—Never Again” speech to what would live on in history as his rousing “I Have A Dream” speech.


How Martin Luther King Went Off Script in “I Have a Dream”: Interview with former Dr. King advisor and speech writer Dr. Clarence B. Jones on Mahalia Jackson’s influence on the extemporaneous portion of Dr. King’s speech.

Mahalia Jackson singing & Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching at Church together

Smithsonian NMAAHC: “Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Takes Flight”

Mahalia Jackson bio (from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University)

Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety

Other resources about Mahalia Jackson:


BBC: How Mahalia Jackson defined the “I Have a Dream” speech (includes timeline of Jackson’s artistic genealogy)


Clip of Mahalia Jackson’s performance of “How I Got Over” (referenced in BBC article) at March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

NYT Obituary for Mahalia Jackson