Oct. 26, 1911
Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel,” was born in New Orleans. After moving to Chicago, she became one of the first singers to move gospel music from the church to the mainstream, attracting white audiences and selling millions.
“I sing God’s music,” she explained, “because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope.”
In 1950, she became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall, and 11 years later, she sang at the inauguration ball for President John Kennedy. She became a voice for the civil rights movement.
In 1956, she performed in Alabama during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, raising money for the movement. But when she returned to Ralph Abernathy’s home, it had been bombed. She continued to perform at events with Martin Luther King Jr., who said a voice like hers “comes not once in a century, but once in a millennium.”
In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington. When King veered from his prepared text, she urged him to, “Tell them about the dream,” a reference to a speech he had given months earlier in Detroit. His oration became known as his “I Have a Dream” speech — one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.
The marches didn’t stop, and neither did Jackson, who saw her music as something that could help “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country.” Her performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” became King’s favorite. When he was assassinated in 1968, she sang the song at his funeral.
When she died four years later of heart failure, Aretha Franklin sang the song at her funeral, which more than 50,000 attended in Chicago.
In her life, Jackson became the first gospel music artist to win a Grammy Award, and after her death, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.