How Mardi Gras Helped Make Mahalia Jackson a Political Activist

Gospel music legend and pioneer Mahalia Jackson is often associated with Chicago, where she moved as a teenager and rose to prominence, but her roots are in New Orleans. It’s there that the “Queen of Gospel” was born, and raised in a “shotgun shack of a New Orleans house,” a three-room dwelling that housed thirteen people and a dog. Her Crescent City childhood also helped shape Jackson’s political consciousness. Below is a short excerpt from “On Conjuring Mahalia: Mahalia Jackson, New Orleans, and the Sanctified Swing,” an article by Johari Jabir that appeared in American Quarterly in September 2009 (registration required):

Mahalia Jackson’s political activism during the civil rights movement was directly informed by her observance of the racism of the pleasure industry associated with New Orleans:

I never did like the world-famous Mardi Gras that went on in New Orleans. It was a beautiful sight, but to me it was horrible. I have seen so many people hurt on that particular day . . . The white people would celebrate their Mardi Gras with big and expensive floats that went down the main part of Canal Street, which were very beautiful and high class . . . But for my people, for them it would be such a tragedy. If one of the tribes demanded that another “take low,” you know, bow to them, they’d kill each other and nobody was punished! The State, the law never did anything about the killings.

Note: the indented section above is from Jules Schwerin’s book Got to Tell It, as quoted by Jabir in his essay.

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