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The woman who inspired Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech

Mahalia Jackson.
Mahalia Jackson.
Wikimedia Commons

Without Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech might never have happened.

Jackson, known as the Queen of Gospel, was a musical legend who helped bring gospel from church to mass audiences. She mentored Aretha Franklin and Della Reese, and in 1961 was the first gospel singer to win a Grammy. She was also instrumental to the civil rights movement, especially as a good friend of King's.

Shortly after meeting King at the National Baptist Convention in 1956, Jackson agreed to sing at a fundraising rally for the Montgomery bus boycott. After that, she frequently accompanied King to perform at rallies and events. Her voice became "the soundtrack of the civil rights movement," as NPR's Sonari Glinton put it.

Jackson was devoted to King, and accompanied him into the most hostile parts of the segregated South for rallies and demonstrations. Even in moments when King felt discouraged, he would call Jackson on the phone just to hear her sing.

This bond of mutual inspiration and respect between King and Jackson came at a pivotal moment during the 1963 March on Washington.

King had struggled with his speech, which was supposed to be kept to five minutes. His advisers argued over which themes he should include. King himself was torn between two metaphors he liked, figuring he only had time for one.

There was the image of a "bad check," representing America's failure to deliver on her promises of freedom to her black citizens. And then there was the idea of King's "dream" for a nation undivided by racial tensions, which he had used in speeches throughout the previous year in cities like Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama. Check out the Detroit version of the speech here — it has a lot in common with the much more famous March on Washington version, but the rhetoric is a bit less soaring and the grievances a bit more specific.

King originally thought the speech should be lower-key, since he was speaking to a broad audience about controversial themes. So the "bad check" image won out — at least in the original printed version of the speech, which doesn't even mention the word "dream." (Can you imagine generations of schoolchildren being taught about MLK's "Insufficient Funds" speech?)

But during delivery, King started improvising a bit when he reached a sentence that felt clunky. Instead of calling on the crowd to "go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction," he went with: "Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed."

It was at that moment, says King's adviser Clarence Jones, that Mahalia Jackson cried out: "Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!"

It was, Jones said, "one of the world’s greatest gospel singers shouting out to one of the world’s greatest Baptist preachers." Jones, who was standing about 50 feet away from King during the speech, recalled that King looked over at Jackson briefly after she shouted. "Then he takes the text of the written speech that's been prepared, and he slides it to the left side of the lectern, grabs the lectern, looks out on more than 250,000 people there assembled." Jones remembers turning to the person next to him and saying, "These people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church."

Then King started speaking completely off the cuff. That ad-lib became "I Have a Dream."

Jones isn't sure, but he thinks Jackson must have heard one of King's earlier versions of the "dream" speech, and that she knew the moment called for it. Jones said when Jackson called out to King it was like a "mandate to respond," and King's body language transformed from lecturer to preacher. "I have never seen him speak the way I saw him on that day," Jones said. "It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body. It was the same body, the same voice, but the voice had something I had never heard before."

It's no wonder Jackson was King's favorite gospel singer, and that he would be so inspired by her at just the right time. Here's Jackson singing "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned" at the March on Washington right before King spoke. She would have had her place in civil rights history with this performance even without what came next.

For more on other amazing women entertainers and activists who shaped the March on Washington and the civil rights movement, check out this great slideshow from the Root.

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