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‘tell them about the dream, martin!’ mahalia jackson

January 21, 2019
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Dreams often feel like a solitary endeavor and whether they’re conjured in the unexplored realms of sleep or conceptualized in the waking hours, a dream is a tricky thing to sell to an audience of one, let alone 250, 000. The dream had been made into speeches given by King previously at fundraisers in Chicago and rallies in Detroit but for the march for civil rights in Washington D.C. on August 28th, 1963, King’s aide Wyatt Walker had considered the dream too “trite” and taking into consideration the size of the crowd, King agreed.

A cursory gaze at history reveals that “trite” always finds its season because anything worth saying can be said again and again. This time, it wasn’t an aide or King’s advisor and speechwriter Clarence Jones that nudged the dial towards history-making — it was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. From 50 feet away, in the middle of the biggest speech of King’s career, Jackson called on Martin Luther King Jr., the preacher with her words “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”

Jones had recounted the moment as “one of the world’s greatest gospel singers shouting out to one of the world’s greatest Baptist preachers.” It was a call to action disguised in the smooth warmth of your auntie’s “Go on, baby.” King answered that call to one of the greatest Jazz singers of his age — a woman who would accompany him on the most trying parts of his journey. King would even call to Jackson who would calm his weariness on the road by serenading him through the phone.

Jones describes the moment with clarity, noting how King pushed the written speech to the left prompting Jones to tell the person nearest to him, “These people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.” And King took that crowd, and the world, to church. All because his dream wasn’t a solitary and trite as he would believe. It took a Black woman to remind the politician that only the preacher could give this sermon and the fact that we are still speaking about it means the world needed to hear it and still does. That being the case, the speech and Jacksons call to remember “the dream” reveal that dreaming can be solitary, right up until a Black woman is involved. Had we lived in a different world, perhaps the women of the Civil Rights Movement would receive their flowers so here is my attempt to shell out the first few roses.

You don’t have to traverse all the way back to the Civil Rights Movement to explore the presence and space Black men hold in Black liberation movements, especially since we now find ourselves at a tipping point in the Black community regarding the treatment of Black women. The sense that we have to serve as collateral damage for our shared liberation has waned over time but even that progression never stopped Black women from showing up. Perhaps it is owed to the “get shit done” philosophy that undergirds Black womanhood. Perhaps it was born of pragmatism that allowed Black women to understand that, even while being placed on the sidelines, the contributions to the movement were priceless.

It’s not that Coretta Scott King’s place in the movement was intrinsically beside her husband — it’s that she took her vows to the man and the dedication to her community to ensure that Martin Luther King Jr. could be the man the world needed him to be, even when his humanity could not help but seep through and potentially devastate that narrative. It’s not simple to look back upon the legacy of women in the Civil Rights Movement and feel a sense of erasure but that is feeling born from ignorance of the monumental role of Black women — it’s a lazy assessment that breeds a pity that they do not deserve.

I wish people knew Septima Poinsette Clark, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ruby Bridges and Claudette Colvin just as well as they knew of King, Carmichael, Marshall and Evers. Dorothy Height was considered the “Godmother of the Civil Rights” movement for her activism that dates back the 1930’s and was involved in planning the March On Washington. Fannie Lou Hamer fought for desegregation in Mississippi and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party so that African Americans could be integrated into the state’s Democratic party.

The names we do immediately recognize, like Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and even Mahalia Jackson herself rose to the surface of public awareness because these women leveraged their notoriety while inviting scrutiny and backlash in order to lend their platforms to the Civil Rights Movement. Baker, Horne and Kitt all refused to perform to segregated clubs with Kitt going as far as carrying a suit on her while toured so she could put a busboy in it to add color to homogenous crowds. The artistic defiance showed by Black women performers poses a perfect example of fame not erasing one’s Blackness just like Blackness does not outweigh gender. The moral of that story is that Black women showed up, anyway.

When the male organizers on the March On Washington were told about the lack of women speaking on the official program, a rushed “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” was added. The fact that no women were included in the delegation that met with President Kennedy later in the day on August 28th displayed the penchant for excluding Black women from “the rooms where it happened”. The fact that Black women still have to fight to be in those rooms speaks to the enduring misogyny within the Black community and thus its movements for racial equality. The Black women, on the other hand, has grown from strength to the strength, driving progress and utilizing advancements in order to envision new “rooms” with capacities that astound and terrify the creators of the smaller, exclusionary spaces of yesteryear.

When I thought of Martin Luther King Jr., my mind would go to the “I have a dream” speech. I doubt there is a person whose mind doesn’t. Now, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” has eclipsed that association because it’s a reminder that Black women dream too. That, in a different world, we’d be voting for Michelle instead of Barack but that world doesn’t exist unless it is created. That world is the Black woman’s “ I have a dream” and there may not be a Mahalia to remind us about our dream, which isn’t a problem because the strides Black women have made in the last year alone reveal that dream.

It is the responsibility of us who remain to keep that dream alive. To sustain the dream for a day where an equally-footed Black community can bring it to fruition.