To his right, Mahalia Jackson starts singing. As her voice fills the room, the words ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho’ ring out, igniting conviction.
Distracted by this spontaneous support, King, unprepared to comment, looks and smiles awkwardly in her direction.
Jackson’s melodic voice rises above the noise and this unplanned introduction takes off. The momentum transforms the sea of applause into an ordered rhythmic harmony. Her smile is contagious, and her hope beyond doubt.
The song ends. The crowd cheers. King speaks:
‘I think I can say, concerning this great Gospel singer, in our midst, our dear friend, my great friend, Mahalia Jackson, that a voice like this comes only once in a millennium’ [i]
I don’t disagree.
Here’s Mahalia singing, ‘Elijah Rock,’ before a large audience on her European tour in the late sixties.
Worth noting are her comments at the end:
‘One day we shall overcome. That’s why my faith is in the Lord. My hope and my strength is in the Lord. For one day, you and I shall overcome. One day, we’re going to stop trying to take God’s ways and make it our ways cause Jesus said, “I’m the way the truth and the life, no man comes to the father, but through me. Cause it all looks like man is trying to make everything his way, but we goanna overcome. The saints of God will overcome. […] The world is confused and frustrated all over. If it isn’t one problem, it’s another. And we must overcome, but we must come back to God.’ (5:50-7:22) [ii]
[i] Link: Mahalia Jackson singing – Martin Luther King Jnr preaching. (Worth watching)
[ii] Just a note on the block quote transcript of Mahalia: I’ve done my best to get this right word for word, however, as may be noticed, in the video some words are harder to discern than others.
Photo: Mahalia Jackson, sourced from The King Center: Freedom Fund Festival Leaflet