When someone has a unique or special talent she is often expected to use that talent to work for her own self promotion and success. Mahalia Jackson was one of those long recognized as having a talent that would gain her fame and fortune if she desired that. And that was the conflict in her life.
Mahalia was the child of parents who both died at very young ages. She was raised by an assortment of brothers, sisters, half siblings aunts and uncles. Her grandparents had actually been slaves. She dropped out of school earlier than someone probably should, but she knew she wanted to work.
At 16 Mahalia went north to Chicago. She began to be noticed for her tremendous talent in singing. She married, although frankly, marriage was a challenge for her. Here’s what her first husband told her about her aspiring to sing gospel music: “Halie, nobody can touch your voice. You’ve got a future in singing. It’s not right for you to throw it away hollering in churches. Woman, you want to nickel and dime all your life?” Louis Armstrong came calling her name telling her she didn’t need to audition, he knew what she could do.
What Decca records, Louis and even her husband didn’t know was Mahalia had made a vow to God to sing gospel music. She purposed in her mind to never stray from that path. She forsook the riches of this world to serve her Saviour by “hollering in churches”. She forsook the prestige of performing with some of the greats in Jazz. What a great example to all of us! You’re familiar with Jesus’ statement “what does it profit a ‘woman’ to gain the whole world but forfeit her soul?”
Of course her career path did lead to much recognition. I’m not sure that it changed her much. She sang at MLK’s funeral. She was the first African American to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1952. You’ve undoubtedly heard of her. Listen to this beautiful rendition of “How Great Thou Art”. Worship Him as you do and remember one of Black History’s greats!
“God had already told me to move on, so I wasn’t there that night” Fannie Lou Hamer wrote these words after 16 shots were fired into a home she slept in supposedly for safety. Why did Miss Fannie need safety? She had done something most of us have done at some point, she registered to vote. Can you imagine wanting to kill someone because they registered to vote? That’s Mississippi in my lifetime, the 1960’s.
Fannie Lou Hamer began picking cotton at age 6. She was the youngest of 20. (you read that right) She wasn’t a slave, although that sounds like it. She was a young girl who saw a lot in her young life, more than a young person should endure. Along the way she relied on the LORD for strength. She soon became a source of encouragement. As word spread of yet another lynching or KKK riot, she would start singing, soothing the hurt of the people she was around.
Upon marriage to Pap Hamer, she started to get more active politically. She went to register to vote, or as she put it, “just another way of asking to die”. In fact she had this kind of matter of fact rationale: “The only thing they could do was to kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time long as I could remember.” She got kicked off the plantation for this “sin” and went to stay with the Tucker family. It was that night the 16 shots were fired into the house. But she had work to do and as she pointed out it wasn’t her time.
Fannie and some others were then taken to jail. A friend was given the nightstick by the jailor and told to beat her. Out of fear for her own life she began beating Miss Fannie. Here is her account of the beating:
“…Then three white men came into my room. One was a state highway policeman (he had the marking on his sleeve)… They said they were going to make me wish I was dead. They made me lay down on my face and they ordered two Negro prisoners to beat me with a blackjack. That was unbearable. The first prisoner beat me until he was exhausted, then the second Negro began to beat me. I had polio when I was about six years old. I was limp. I was holding my hands behind me to protect my weak side. I began to work my feet. My dress pulled up and I tried to smooth it down. One of the policemen walked over and raised my dress as high as he could. They beat me until my body was hard, ’til I couldn’t bend my fingers or get up when they told me to. That’s how I got this blood clot in my eye – the sight’s nearly gone now. My kidney was injured from the blows they gave me on the back.”
Miss Fannie prayed during the beatings, “father please forgive these men for what they’re doing”.
Miss Fannie Lou Hamer, a great African American Christian indeed teaching us how to handle adversity in a Christlike way. When we become believers the Holy Spirit produces fruit. Think of the fruits of the spirit, Love, Joy, Peace, Longsuffering. She demonstrated these in the actions described above. There’s lots more I could write, but I will let you look her up yourself.
Precious LORD, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand…
Have you ever heard this line? You probably have. It’s the words penned by Thomas Dorsey. There was a big band leader named Tommy Dorsey, this is not him. If you’ve seen the great documentary “Say Amen Somebody”, you know who Thomas Dorsey is.
He is known as the Father of Gospel Music.
It wasn’t always that way.
Thomas Dorsey was a talented musician. He wanted to try the worldly way with music. He wanted to make money in music. He was a pianist in an Al Capone speakeasy up in the Chicago area. He was a prolific writer of blues and jazz music. However, God used one of the evils of the day, overt racism to drive him away from the line of music he favored. He was being rejected because of the color of his skin, something he hoped he’d left behind in his hometown in Georgia.
What man meant for evil, God meant for good, and so Thomas Dorsey turned to gospel music. His dad, a baptist minister would approve. Shortly after turning to Gospel music
his wife became pregnant. They looked forward to the day that arrived with great heartache. In giving birth, Mrs. Dorsey passed from this life.
A grieving Thomas Dorsey turned to what he knew best. His faith in Christ carried him and in his sorrow he penned the words he’s most famous for.
Precious LORD, take my hand, Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Thro the storm, thro the night, lead me on to the light, Take my hand, precious LORD, lead me home.
The sang helped his fame spread. He stayed true to his calling¸ to spread the gospel through music. His writing actually inspired maybe the first American “worship war”. The reaction of the blues inspired gospel music he wrote in churches was controversial.
The music inspired lively ‘movement’, we’d probably call it dance. Many traditionalists were aghast. But it grew in popularity and the lively genre of gospel music was developed into a standard form of worship music.
At the end of his life this is what Thomas Dorsey, the first in our famous African American Christians series, wrote: “all my work has been from God, for God, and for his people.”
And he’s someone you should know!
(See my January 30 blog for an explanation of this series)