A week ago, America commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial. You know, that famous “I have a dream” speech that gave children and adults the freedom to dream, to dream big and to dream of rights they deserved as humans but did not have. It was a moment, one of those seminal moments in history that changes things.
It was a moment that I had heard about so many times as a white, middle-class, American child that I didn’t recognize the significance, the gravitas, the bravery until I became an adult and saw the pain of this world and how hatred can disease even now, even in our age of “tolerance.” I’m both grateful for this country’s progress and saddened at the lack of it.
In class recently, my professor played a segment from NPR, an interview with Dr. King’s legal advisor, Clarence B. Jones. In the clip, Jones reminisces about the day of that speech and the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s part in prompting Dr. King to his iconic words. My professor used this as an example of how women’s vital roles in major events are often downplayed and forgotten, and it was an excellent introduction to our course on women’s rhetoric in social movements. However, something else from the interview struck me more.
Jones talks about King’s connection with Mahalia Jackson, and how he would receive “telephone gospel therapy” from her. On the hardest days, and I’m sure there were many, King would call up Jackson and ask her to sing to him. Over the telephone, she would sing his favorite songs, and he would listen. Jones said at the end of some calls, King would tell Jackson, “Mahalia, you are giving me the Lord’s voice this morning.”
I can’t shake that image, that of a beaten-down, exhausted man picking up the telephone, the hope of the civil rights movement with burdens so heavy upon him that he could barely lift the receiver. Can you imagine what he felt? What he knew? The dangers he faced? The dangers he knew others would face: his family? His friends? His church? His neighbors?
Maybe he’d pray and maybe he’d pace, but then when that didn’t work, he’d call her and ask her to sing for him. To sing the tension and the pain and the worry away, if only for a moment. If the release only lasted while her voice carried him to Jesus, it was worth it. It gave him what he needed to keep going, at least for another day, or another hour, or just another moment.
We can build up historical figures to be larger-than-life, to be superhuman and impossible to relate to. But the retelling of that moment helped me understand Dr. King in a very small way. I understand the power of music and what it can do to your heart, to your soul, especially in times of deep pain, longing, and fear. Now, I don’t get to call up Jon Foreman or Marcus Mumford or Joy Williams and ask them to sing me to bravery, unfortunately. However, I do know how it feels when a song burrows its way into your heart at just the right moment, allowing tears the freedom to pour down your cheeks as a type of letting go.
“Mahalia, you are giving me the Lord’s voice this morning.”
I don’t know if you’re one of the lucky ones who hears God speak in shouts or whispers or in anything at all. I know that usually I am not. But I do hear him in chords, in banjos, in lyrics that speak the words I could never find. Most days that’s enough for me, just to know he’s there, behind the music. The Lord’s voice.
It gives me the strength to move forward. And even though I’m not a civil rights leader or person of importance, I still have days when I need that buoy to hold onto. I know that’s something Dr. King would understand.