Martin Loves Mahalia By BTAR Anita Levels
On August 28, 1955 a 14 year old boy from Chicago, IL named, Emmett Till, was killed by two adult white males in Mississippi. Till’s murderers were acquitted after one hour of deliberation from an all-white, all-male jury. Also in Mississippi and only months after Till’s murder, two Black voting activists were also murdered, Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith. Brazenly, Mr. Lamar Smith was killed in daylight before witnesses, on the county steps right after casting his ballot.
After the above inhumane acts and though already active, The Civil Rights Movement became a Phoenix and began to rise in its passions and momentum. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was becoming a noteworthy wordsmith that knew how to galvanize a crowd. He also loved gospel music but adored his favorite Gospel singer, Sister Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia was born in New Orleans in 1911, was a powerhouse Gospel singer that recorded and toured the world to bring Gospel music outside of the four walls of the church. After meeting in 1956, Dr. King would ask Mahaila to accompany him to be his “sermonic soloist”. A sermonic soloist is designated to sing a special hymn just before a reverend preaches. Think of it this way, she was his theme music (see video). You’ll see the freedom that Mahalia has when around Dr. King. Their synergy and kinship for each other is palpable.
On August 28, 1963 during The March on Washington, and in standard Martin and Mahalia fashion, Dr. King made sure that Mahalia Jackson sang at The March. A granddaughter from an enslaved generation, she sang two Negro spirituals “How I Got Over” and “‘Buked and Scorned” (see video).
Sister Jackson was the last music performer prior to Dr. King’s presentation and then in front of a crowd of approximately 250,000, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his speech by stating, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…”
Dr. King had his notes prepared and his writing assistants were nearby, Mahalia Jackson was also only 50 feet away. No where in the notes were the words “I have a dream”. However, during the times Sister Mahalia would perform her sermonic selections, she’d overhear Dr. King preach about his dream many times. Mahalia knew Martin. She knew him so well and was comfortable enough to shout out, in classic call and response, Black church, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial FASHION,
“Tell them about the Dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” And the rest is literal history.
In the video here, Dr. Jones, a writing assistant for the preparation for The March on Washington, and friend of Dr. King. remembers when this happens and mentions that at that moment he leaned over to someone and said, “These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
On April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Dr. King’s favorite hymn was written by Thomas Dorsey, Precious Lord, Take my Hand. And in the continued Martin and Mahalia protocol, Sister Mahalia sang at Dr. King’s Memorial service for her final sermonic selection. Mahalia Jackson died 4 years later in 1972. (Sister Mahalia begins singing at 54:00. View the video here.)
Thank you Dr. King and Sister Mahalia Jackson. These two integrated their legacies with graceful resistance. They were both communicators of unity, heritage and pride. They created a twin-peaked impact progressing a movement that leaned America over a finish line toward The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
His speech. Her song.
His words. Her melody.
Martin loved Mahalia. It’s said that every superhero deserves their own theme music. Well, Martin deserved Mahalia.