A Service of UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Book shares new details on the life of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson

Legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson on April 16, 1962.
Carl Van Vechten
Library of Congress
Gospel singer and civil right activist Mahalia Jackson on April 16, 1962.

A half-century after the death of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a book released this month provides new details on her life, including the role she played during defining moments of the U.S. civil rights struggle.

“Only on Sundays: Mahalia Jackson’s Long Journey” was written by Arkansas-native Janis Kearney. It chronicles Jackson’s life from being born in poverty in New Orleans to becoming a highly influential singer who sold millions of records and performed to enthusiastic crowds around the world.

“She was friends with presidents and kings and queens. When she traveled all over the world, her music became a unifier,” Kearney said. “Mahalia Jackson is someone so much larger than most of us knew, certainly I knew growing up, and I'm so glad that I've done the research, and I've kind of discovered the real Mahalia Jackson.”

It was a chance encounter that led Kearney to write the book. She and her husband moved to Chicago in 2001 and met Roland Burris who had purchased Jackson's home there just weeks before she died in 1972.

“We had dinner with him and he was the one who kind of egged me on to write her story and also shared some information with me that had been left at the home,” Kearney said. “I promised him that I would write the story.”

She says details provided by Burris gave new insights into largely unknown facets of Jackson’s life. Kearney also researched the singer’s interactions with political leaders, especially in Chicago. But perhaps most noteworthy was Jackson’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“She was an advisor, she was a supporter – she was certainly a financial supporter. She introduced him to people and communities that he may not have been able to infiltrate without her,” Kearney said. “Her music was the music of his struggle and he utilized that. So, she was someone who was so important to the movement and so important to him. Once he convinced her that she had a voice in the civil rights struggle, she used that voice all the time until the end.”

Jackson sang during the 1963 March on Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the nation’s capital. King was the final speaker, delivering his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Leading up to the event, King shared the speech with Jackson, but Kearney says Jackson wasn’t completely satisfied with what she heard.

“He wasn't delivering it as she thought he would,” Kearney said. “She noticed that he was not saying some of the things that he had shared with her, and that is when she encouraged him: tell them about the dream; tell them about your dreams. And he did. He did so, and that is that speech that we all know and love.”

Kearney says it solidified what was already a very close relationship between the two.

“He would never forget the fact that it was her who actually encouraged him to do the speech. But I think the speech, it just put him on another level with America, certainly with Black America, but with America – it was one of those brilliant speeches that just moved everyone emotionally, and I think we all started thinking about the civil rights struggle in a different way.”

In addition to discussing her being a music superstar and one of the most influential women of her time, the book also delves into Jackson’s savvy business practices, owning several businesses and properties. She also created a foundation and, before her death, wanted to create a church that would have also been a school.

Since the release of the book, Kearney says she has been taking part in events and getting reactions from those who have read it.

“I'm learning that people are amazed to learn that she has so many different levels to her. She was a rather complex woman,” Kearney said.

The author hopes her research will serve as an inspiration to people born long after Jackon’s death.

“She was so much more than just a singer, she was a teacher, she was an adviser and she was a brilliant business woman. So, there are so many opportunities for young people to learn their own possibilities by learning her story.”

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.