Mahalia Jackson (October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972) was a gospel singer who possessed a powerful contralto voice. She was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel”. Jackson became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.
Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl section of the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana. Jackson grew up singing in church, moved from New Orleans to Chicago when she was a teenager, and eventually went into business in real estate and as a shop owner. All the while she continued to sing gospel, turning down offers to perform professionally. She finally began recording in the 1930s, and a decade later her own “Move On Up A Little Higher” became a million-seller. She toured the world, appeared in films and on television, and performed at the inauguration of U.S. president John F. Kennedy. She is considered one of America’s greatest gospel singers.
Mahalia Jackson died in Chicago on January 27, 1972 of heart failure and diabetes complications. Two cities paid tribute, Chicago and New Orleans. Beginning in Chicago, outside the Greater Salem Baptist Church, 50,000 people filed silently past her mahogany, glass-topped coffin in 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, for a two-hour funeral service. Mahalia’s pastor, the Rev. Leon Jenkins, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Mrs. Coretta Scott King 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, a thousand miles away, the scene repeated itself: again the long lines, again the silent tribute, again the thousands filling the great hall of the Rivergate Convention Center in downtown New Orleans this time. Mayor Moon Landrieu and Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen joined gospel singer Bessie Griffin; Dick Gregory praised ‘Mahalia’s “moral force” as main reason for her success”, and Lou Rawls sang “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. The funeral cortège of 24 limousines drove slowly past her childhood place of worship, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, where her recordings played through loudspeakers. It made its way to Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisiana where Jackson was entombed. Despite the inscription of Jackson’s birth year on her headstone as 1912, she was actually born in 1911.