How Gospel Great Mahalia Jackson Gave Wing to MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech
Jackson was on hand to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before and after King addressed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And if she'd only climaxed the civil rights event by performing "How I Got Over," that would have been history enough. But her greatest contribution to the occasion went unheard by the vast crowd on the Washington mall, and it consisted of one single exhortation:
"Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!"
That's what witnesses close to the podium heard the gospel great shout midway through the speech. And it seemingly had a startling effect. With nary a pause, King pushed the notes from which he'd been reading off to the side. He no longer is seen looking down at the prepared text, and as he goes extemporaneous, King's calm voice suddenly takes on a preacherly oratorical style. He is winging it. He is telling them about the dream.
And by "them," we mean not just the tens of thousands on hand in D.C., but the tens of millions who would hear recorded snippets of this spontaneity over the next five decades.
It was "one of the world’s greatest gospel singers shouting out to one of the world’s greatest Baptist preachers," speech writer Clarence Jones told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "She may have ignored the fact that there were almost 300,000 other people there, and she just shouted out to Martin, ‘Tell them about the dream.’ Anybody else who would yell at him, he probably would’ve ignored it. He didn’t ignore Mahalia Jackson. I said to somebody standing next to me, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church'."
Jones had collaborated with King on the original version of the speech, but he was hardly offended when the civil rights leader suddenly deviated from the text. "When Mahalia said that, it was almost like a mandate to respond," he told a Television Critics Association panel in early August, while promoting "The March," a newly airing PBS special narrated by Denzel Washington. "I could see his body language change from the rear. Where he had been reading, like giving a lecture, but then going into his Baptist preacher mode."
On another occasion this year, Jones said, "I have never seen him speak the way I saw him on that day. 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 was so powerful, it was spellbinding."
Mahalia Jackson at the march
Mahalia Jackson at the march
It wasn't as if Jackson was aware of King's REM sleep patterns. "I have often speculated that she had heard him talk in other places, and make reference to the dream," Jones told the TCA panel. For example: "On June 23, 1963, in Detroit, he had made very express reference to the dream."