Today marks the 101st birthday of American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972). Nicknamed “Halie,” Jackson grew up in a home with thirteen extended family members in New Orleans. From an early age, she loved to perform and proved that she was gifted in her church choir. After her mother passed away, Jackson sought and found within the church the stability that was absent from her home life. The connection between spirituality and performance would continue throughout Jackson’s life. She would eventually become not only a known singer in the early years of modern gospel music, but the “Queen of Gospel.”
In song, Jackson looked, and said that she felt, much like she was praying. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, tapping into not only her wide vocal range, but also a transcendent experience. In her documented performances, members of her church’s congregation can be seen raising their hands, swaying to the beat, and even shouting, “Amen,” from time to time, demonstrating their connection to this soulful woman and her proclamations of faith. Like a preacher, Jackson served as a conduit to God for many people. Additionally, she was a leader for the African American community. In 1963, at the March on Washington, Jackson performed a stunning rendition of “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned,” just before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Faced with personal challenges and discrimination, Jackson sang with poise and passion and is considered by many critics to be the greatest gospel singer of all time.
“It’s easy to be independent when you’ve got money. But to be independent when you haven’t got a thing—that’s the Lord’s test.”
—Mahalia Jackson, quote from Evan McLoud Wylie’s Movin’ On Up, 1966.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts hosts Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power from September 7, 2012–January 6, 2013. Don’t miss this exhibition, which illustrates the important roles women have played in rock and roll from its inception through today.
—Kristie Landing is a guest blogger for the National Museum of Women in the Arts.