By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
LONDON, UK (ANS – August 23, 2016) — It was in mid-May 1969, when my editor asked me to go along to the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane, London, to interview Mahalia Jackson, the American civil rights activist and black gospel singer.
When I arrived, I joined with a large bevy of journalists and we were all given a few minutes with this great lady, who rose from Deep South poverty to world renown as a passionate gospel singer and had been a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When it finally came to my turn to interview her — I was last in the line — she looked very tired, but she still took time to share with me about how, at the March on Washington, she had sung in front of 250,000 people, at Dr. King’s request, Gospel songs like “How I Got Over,” “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”
The historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, was, at the time, the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital, and one of the first to have extensive television coverage.
“It was there that Dr. King made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and like millions of others around the world, I was heartbroken when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968,” she told me as she wiped away the tears. “I got to sing ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ at his funeral in Atlanta. He was the finest friend I ever had.”
But she modestly left out how she got to put her stamp on his iconic Washington speech. In fact, he changed his speech because of her.
According to media reports that I later read, just as Dr. King felt comfortable telling her what to sing as the lead-in to what proved to be the most famous speech of his life, Mahalia felt comfortable telling him in what direction to take that speech.
The story that has been told since that day as Mahalia Jackson intervening at a critical junction when she decided King’s speech needed a “course-correction.” Recalling a theme that she had heard him use in earlier speeches, Mahalia said out loud to Dr. King from behind the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
And at that moment, as can be seen in films of the speech, Dr. King left his prepared notes behind to improvise the entire next section of his speech — the historic section that famously begins “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream….”
Before my time was up, I asked Mahalia why still kept up such a heavy schedule, and she smiled and said, “I don’t do it for money. I sing because I love to sing and to serve the Lord.”
And could she sing! This was something I discovered first-hand on Sunday, May 18, 1969, when I attended her sold-out, standing-room only concert at London’s famed Royal Albert Hall, where she sang her heart out for about two hours with a succession of gospel songs that brought the audience to their feet as they cheered after each one.
It was truly like a trip to heaven!
If you would like to see part of that great concert with Mahalia singing, “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho” please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cthDwJ9vknA. (This link was kindly supplied by Sherman Houston).
Critic Max Jones later spoke of her charm, saying, “When she dances those little church steps at the end of a rocking number, you need a heart of stone to remain unsmiling.”
There were many smiles that night, and I was shocked when, on January 27, 1972, I learned that she had died of a heart seizure and diabetes complications in Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. She was 60 years old, and had been in poor health for several years.
Two cities paid tribute, Chicago and New Orleans, where she was born. Beginning in Chicago, outside the Greater Salem Baptist Church, 50,000 people filed silently past her mahogany, glass-topped coffin in a final tribute to the “Queen of Gospel Song.”
The next day, as many as could — 6,000 or more — filled every seat and stood along the walls of the city’s public concert hall, the Arie Crown Theater of McCormick Place, Chicago, for a two-hour funeral service.
Mahalia’s pastor, the Rev. Leon Jenkins, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Dr. King’s widow, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, who eulogized Mahalia during the Chicago funeral as “a friend – proud, black and beautiful.”
Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald paid their respects. Dr. Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., delivered the eulogy at the Chicago funeral. Aretha Franklin closed the Chicago rites with a moving rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Three days later in her home town of New Orleans, the scene repeated itself with thousands paying tribute, this time at the great hall of Rivergate Convention Center. Twenty-four limousines later drove to Providence Memorial Park where Mahalia Jackson was finally entombed.
“Through her recordings she lives and leaves behind a glorious legacy- truly joyful sound. She will always be the uncontested Queen of Gospel Music,” said writer, Curtis Jackson, in a tribute to her.
Mahalia Jackson was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor artists whose recordings are at least twenty-five years old and have “qualitative or historical significance.”
I was reminded of that time when I was able to meet this amazing lady when a DVD arrived at my home called “Spirit of the Church: A Celebration of Black Gospel Music. You can check it out own by going to https://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Church-Celebration-Black-Gospel/dp/B00AFEYKHK.
One reviewer said: “This is truly a fascinating and remarkable DVD. It is wonderful learning the history of Black gospel music, the historical performances from the legends of gospel music — one of them being the iconic Mahalia Jackson. The DVD is inspiring, uplifting, remarkable and powerful.”
I couldn’t agree more.
It is quite remarkable how Mahalia Jackson was able to go from real, desperate poverty, to singing on the stages of some of the world’s great venues. She even sang at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, and also for President Richard Nixon in the White House.
The third of six children, Mahalia was born in poverty in a three-room “shot-gun” shack in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1911. Her father John A. Jackson, was a stevedore, barber and minister and her mother, Charity Clark (who died when Mahalia was five) was a maid and laundress. Early in her life Mahalia Jackson absorbed the conservative music tradition of hymn singing at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church, where her family worshipped, and she was also attracted to the strong rhythms and emotional abandon evident in the music of a nearby Holiness church.
Photo captions: 1) Mahalia Jackson in London, with Dan Wooding waiting to interview her. 2) Dr. King waves to the huge crowd in Washington, DC. 3) Part of the program of Mahalia’s Royal Albert Hall concert (Kindly, supplied by Sherman Houston). 4) Louis Armstrong gets a hug and a pat on the shoulder from Mahalia Jackson at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 11, 1970, during “A Tribute to Louis Armstrong.” 5) Mahalia Jackson sings an impromptu “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” to the beat of the Eureka Brass Band at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 23, 1970. (Times-Picayune archive). 6) Norma and Dan Wooding on a reporting assignment in Hollywood, California. (Bryan Seltzer).
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, who then worked with the Sudan Interior Mission, now known as SIM. He now lives in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for some 53 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of the ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and is also the author of some 45 books. He also has one weekly radio show and two TV shows all based in Southern California. Besides interviewing Mahalia Jackson, he also interviewed Mrs. Coretta Scott King at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, just before she spoke at a memorial service for her late husband.
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