Mahalia Jackson rose from Deep South poverty to world renown as a passionate gospel singer. Closely associated with the black civil rights movement, Miss Jackson was chosen to sing at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington rally at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. "I been 'buked and I been scorned/ I'm gonna tell my Lord/ When I get home/ Just how long you've been treating me wrong," she sang in a full, rich contralto to the throng of 200,000 people as a preface to Dr. King's "I've got a dream" speech. That was truly a historic occasion.
The song, which Dr. King had requested, came as much from Miss Jackson's heart as from her vocal cords. The granddaughter of a slave, she had struggled for years for fulfillment and for unprejudiced recognition of her talent. Although Miss Jackson's medium was the sacred song drawn from the Bible or inspired by it, the words-and the "soul" style in which they were delivered-became metaphors of black protest. Among her own people her favorites were "Move On Up a Little Higher," "Just Over the Hill" and "How I Got Over."
Singing these and other songs to black audiences, Miss Jackson was a woman on fire, whose combs flew out of her hair as she performed. She moved her listeners to dancing, to shouting, to ecstasy.
Many of Miss Jackson's songs were evocations of religious faith and were intended, in keeping with her own profound belief in God, to be devotional. Her rhythms might be syncopated, but her soaring voice aimed to obey the psalmist's injunction to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord."
Miss Jackson's songs were not hymns, nor were they jazz. Convinced that everything she said or did rested on the word of God, she resisted efforts of the late Louis Armstrong and other jazz or blues musicians to transform her into a jazz singer.
Seeking to communicate her faith, Miss Jackson did a great deal of her singing, especially in the early days, in store- front churches, revival tents and ballrooms. A massive, stately, even majestic, woman, she possessed an awesome presence that was apparent in whatever milieu she chose to perform.
Whether singing at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy or at Constitution Hall in Washington, or at Philharmonic Hall here, or in prisons, hospitals and children's homes, Miss Jackson always commanded respect. But she never forgot her origins. Born in New Orleans on Oct. 26, 1911, she was the third of six children of a man who was a longshoreman by day, a barber by night and a clergyman on Sunday. Her home, left motherless when she was 6, was impoverished but respectable.