August 28, 1963 is famous for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil right march on Washington but right by his side was legendary gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson. She play a direct role in making his speech into one of the most memorable and meaningful in American history.
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was already internationally famous as the Queen of Gospel and she was there for the event that launched the Civil Rights movement, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. This is where she first met and befriended the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she would support throughout his career.
Mahalia Jackson was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite opening act. On August 28, 1963, as she took to the podium before an audience of 250,000 to give the last musical performance before Dr. King’s speech, Dr. King himself requested that she sing the gospel classic “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned.” Jackson was just as familiar with Dr. King’s repertoire as he was with hers, and just as King felt comfortable telling her what to sing as the lead-in to what would prove to be the most famous speech of his life, Jackson felt comfortable telling him in what direction to take that speech.
The story that has been told since that day has Mahalia Jackson intervening at a critical junction when she decided King’s speech needed a course-correction. Recalling a theme she had heard him use in earlier speeches, Jackson said out loud to Martin Luther King, Jr., 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 leaves 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….”