The Women Who Sang Out for Civil Rights
When Martin Luther King Jr. had those rough patches, those days and nights when he felt worn down by struggles and soul-beatings, he used to call Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer and close friend. King wanted her to sing some soul-lifting melodies to see him through the weariness. And she did. She sang King through moments of despair and threats of hopelessness.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a historic event largely commemorated for King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. On Aug. 28, 1963, King requested that before he spoke Jackson would sing him into another moment of strength and perseverance. He wanted to hear her sing the gospel tune, "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned." And she did. Jackson sang the civil rights leader into the moments of giving his speech of a lifetime.
For many years, the accomplishments of the civil rights movement have primarily been credited to the work of the male activists, leaders, and celebrities. Thankfully scholars, journalists, and historians have begun to recognize and name some of the countless women who played irreplaceable roles in the movement.
Over the past week, as I read articles, listened to songs, and watched footage of the march and the movement, I have been struck by the beautiful way women literally gave their voices to fight for justice. They spoke and sang and stood to proclaim the Kingdom reality of social and economic equality for all people.
We often forget that the struggle for civil rights and women's rights occurred simultaneously, not one after another. These women were in the midst of pushing for gender equality during the civil rights movement. Many women were discouraged from publicly speaking to mixed-gender groups or from taking the media light during key moments.
The women who did have a public face in the civil rights movement—women like Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, and Myrlie Evers Williams—were the wives of noted leaders. We may recognize a few other names—Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, and Ella Baker—but countless women worked behind the scenes and remain largely unnamed. They cooked, cleaned, prepared, and set the stage for protests, meetings and rallies.
But there was another pivotal way in which women of the civil rights era made their voices and their opinions heard: they sang. When they were not offered a microphone from which to preach, to speak, or to rally, they found a microphone from which to sing, to bellow, and to proclaim what they believed in and what they were fighting and hoping for. Mahalia Jackson didn't just sing to Martin Luther King. She sang to throes of people, encouraging and sustaining them for the journey.
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