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Henry Louis Gates Jr. On 'The Black Church' And His Own Bargain With Jesus

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Henry Louis Gates, has written a new book called "The Black Church." That's a companion to the PBS series he hosts of the same name. The book explores the history of African American religions from the days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Black Lives Matter movement. He says Black churches were the first institutions built by Black people and run independent of white society in the U.S. with the earliest Black Christian congregations roughly contemporaneous with the Declaration of Independence. He describes how churches became the foundation of Black religious, political, economic and social life. He also tells his story about the bargain he made with Jesus that led him to the church at age 12. But life eventually led him to become more of an observer than participant in religion.

Henry Louis Gates has hosted many PBS series and written companion books exploring the history of African Americans, including the recent book and series on Reconstruction. He also hosts the series "Finding Your Roots," in which, through DNA tests and in-depth genealogical research, he reveals the ancestral history of his well-known guests. Gates is a professor at Harvard, where he directs the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. Our interview was recorded last Thursday.

Henry Louis Gates, welcome back to FRESH AIR. A pleasure to have you back on our show. In the acknowledgements in your book, you thank a list of people for helping you fully realize the awesome significance of the Black church and Black religious beliefs in your own life and in the lives of other people. Let's talk a little bit about your own life. When you were young, your mother was Methodist, your father Episcopalian. You attended your mother's church as a child. Would you describe that church?

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR: Yeah, it was a small Methodist church. It's called Waldon Methodist Church. It's still there. And many of my cousins and old friends still worship at that church, and many of the people most dear to me who passed away are memorialized on the walls of the church. But it was a Methodist church, but it was almost a Fundamentalist church. If you joined that church, you couldn't dance. You couldn't play cards. You couldn't go to basketball games. You couldn't go to movies. Obviously, you couldn't drink. You had to be faithful to your spouse (laughter). You know, it was very strict. It was almost like a Pentecostal church without the shouting and the speaking in tongues. And I joined that church when I was 12 years old.

GROSS: There's a story behind why you joined the church. Your mother got sick. Your father was taking her to the hospital, but before he took her, she spoke to you. What did she tell you?

GATES: Well, it was a Sunday night, and I was playing on the floor and watching TV on our little 12-inch black-and-white TV. It's 1962. And my mom and dad were all dressed up, and it was Sunday evening, and I couldn't figure out why. And Mama had tears in her eyes, and she bent over, and she said, Skippy, I have to tell you something. We're going to the hospital, and I'm going to die. I've been very sick, and I'm going to die. And I'm saying goodbye, and I want you to be good to your father, and you listen to him. And I looked - and I just burst into tears, I mean, hysterically. And she cried, and she hugged me, and my father took her arm, and they walked out the door. And I just - I was stunned, and, Terry, I just didn't know what to do.

I went upstairs to my bedroom, and I got on my knees, and I was weeping hysterically, and I prayed to Jesus. And I said, if you let my mother live, I will give my life to you, to Christ. And I don't remember much else about that, except I prayed over and over, and I cried myself to sleep. And finally, you know, three days later, my mother came home from the hospital. And it was a miracle. She hadn't died. And I looked in the mirror, and I said, oh (laughter), you know, you don't mess with God. I made a deal with Jesus.

So unbeknownst to anybody, I hitchhiked five miles to Keyser for the Saturday afternoon service. I didn't tell anybody. And I went into the church. There were probably about 12 people there gathered for the service. Their average age must've been 80 (laughter). And they all thought it was sort of cute. Everybody knew everybody, you know, in the hills of West Virginia, in the colored community, as we put it. And there's a point in the service called the call to the altar. And when the minister says, would anybody here like to give their life to Christ? And I stood up. And the minister innocently thought that I had stood up to go to the bathroom, and he said, Skippy, the toilet (laughter) is right back here. And I said, no, I want to join the church. And he gasped, and everybody's eyes got big, and they all stood up.

He invited me to the altar. Everybody in the church gathered around me, and he read the questions that they posed to a would-be convert. And I answered, yes, I would, or I answered affirmatively. And it was very moving. It was - I cried. The people all cried, and they hugged me. And so I was a member of the church.

GROSS: A lot of people make bargains with God. Like, if I get better, if I heal, I will devote my life to you. So many people make that bargain and don't keep it. Why did you keep it? Like, what motivated you to take it that seriously and actually follow through?

GATES: I wanted my mother to live, and I was convinced that Jesus had performed a miracle and let my mother live. And the price was that I would join the church. The exchange was that I would give my life to Christ.

GROSS: Wait, so did you think that you saved your mother's life, that your prayer saved her life?

GATES: Well, I didn't - I wasn't arrogant enough to think that, necessarily, but I know that I had made a promise to God and that if my mother lived, I would give my life to Christ. So Terry, for two years, I didn't go to basketball games, and that was the only sport that we had at our school. I didn't play cards. I loved playing cards. That was a way of life in my household - pinochle, canasta, hearts, spades, bid whist. I didn't dance. I loved to dance. And remember, this is '62, so it was R&B, and soul music was about to burst out, Motown. I didn't do any of those things. I went to church. I joined the choir.

And finally, my brother - I have one brother that's five years older, Dr. Paul Gates. He was in dental school. And he was worried about my mental health (laughter), and he said, I've had enough of this. He came home from West Virginia University Dental School, and he said, I'm taking you to see the new Beatles movie. It's 1964. And he put me in his Corvair car and dragged me to the mall. And I went in, and I watched this Beatles movie, and it gave me so much pleasure. But when I came out of the movie, I was terrified. I thought a bolt of lightning was going to come out of the sky and strike me dead (laughter). And right after that, I'm - you know, never really lived up to all the ideals that a convert should live up to, but I did my best.

And it's all I could do, Terry. I mean, your mother's going to die. My mother was my hero. She was the most brilliant, beautiful person I have ever met. She taught me herself to read and write. This was long before "Sesame Street." We used to watch "Ding Dong School" (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, I remember that.

GATES: Yeah, with Miss...

GROSS: Arlene Francis (laughter).

GATES: Yes, with Miss Frances. Precisely. And we would read and, you know, make the letters and learned cursive, but we didn't call it cursive then. We just called it writing. And we would make papier-mache castles. And by the time I hit first grade, I was light years ahead of all the other kids. It was because of my mother. We were very - I look like my mother. We were very, very close. And the idea that she was going to die was just unbearable to me. And so I owed that sacrifice to protect my mother's life.

GROSS: Did you ever find out what was wrong with your mother and did you ever tell your mother this story?

GATES: No, I never told my mother this story. My mother died in 1997, and I first wrote about it in my memoir "Colored People," which I believe you interviewed me about...

GROSS: I did.

GATES: ...In the '90s. But I was able to tell it in a fuller way in the PBS series and in the book. My mother suffered from a severe form of menopause. The science - medical - the medical science about menopause and hormonal changes in women was very primitive at that time. I remember that there were these little pamphlets scattered around the house called the Three Phases of Eve, and I would surreptitiously read these to try to understand what was going on with my mother. But my mother underwent a major personality transformation.

She was brave and bold and fearless and questing. She was the first Black secretary, elected 1957, three years after Brown v. Board, at our integrated school. And everything I am I owe to the example of my mother. And after she went through that menopause, she became depressed. She was a very neat person. She had studied to be a seamstress at vocational school in Atlantic City in the '30s. And she started just to gather pieces of cloth and store them in garbage cans, brand-new garbage cans. She became - she was so neat and orderly, and she - her world just became a clutter. I've never seen as dramatic a personality change in anybody as I saw in my mother.

So she didn't die. But a part of her died, and she never recovered. She never became the person that she was before she went through menopause. Fortunately, the science of treating menopause has developed exponentially since the early 1960s. But then many of her concerns weren't even taken seriously by her doctors, and she wasn't supported so much by her brothers and sisters, which left a very bad taste in my mouth.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Louis Gates. His new book "The Black Church" is a companion to the PBS series of the same name. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICAGO GOSPEL KEYBOARD MASTERS' "I'LL SAY YES TO THE LORD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Henry Louis Gates. His new book, The Black Church, is a companion to his PBS series of the same name, which he hosted.

You come, in a way, from a very churchy family. You have two uncles on your mother's side who founded their own evangelical churches when they turned 60. And you have another uncle who graduated divinity school from Boston University in 1960 and is now a semiretired Methodist minister. So when you considered at some point becoming a minister yourself, you probably took that pretty seriously.

GATES: Yeah, I took it seriously. My uncle Harry Coleman, who went to BU, really inspired me to think about going to college in the Ivy League. And one of my father's first cousins graduated from Harvard Law School, and his wife got a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard in 1955. So the Ivy League was very much in my mind. But my uncle would come back and talk about how magical Boston was. And that stuck with me. By the way, my mother - he and my Uncle Alvin, who went to Michigan State and became a professor of biology at Prairie View A&M, the great historically Black college in Texas - they would mail their laundry back to my mother. And she would do their laundry and then mail it back to them because they didn't have enough money to have their shirts laundered and pressed and starched. That's who my mother was. And and their presence as students was very much in my life because I would see these packages coming with their dirty laundry. And...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's not the way people usually typically get introduced to university education. Wow. I'm just thinking of how expensive it probably was to ship the clothes back and forth. Like, that's not cheap.

GATES: I remember my mother was a seamstress, so she never - after my brother and I were born, she never worked outside the house. But I think she thought that nobody could launder their shirts as well as she could. But you know what, Terry? It was my mother's way of contributing to their education. She was the oldest child. She had 11 brothers and sisters who survived. One, Gracie (ph), died in infancy. And she had to work. And so she would send the money, and she would do their laundry. But my mother was 10 times smarter than all her brothers and sisters. I mean, no offense to my (laughter) uncle the professor and my uncle - my three uncles the ministers. But my mother was a genius, and she could have gone to college. But she was born in 1916 in Piedmont, W.Va. And so that option didn't avail itself. But my mama raised me and my brother to be doctors. As far as my mother's concerned, in heaven, there's the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost and a medical doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

GATES: And she gave us stethoscopes for a birthday, dissecting kits for Christmas. You know, there was no question. I was - even when - I graduated from Yale, as you know, as a history major. I took a couple science courses. I got a fellowship, a Mellon fellowship to go to the University of Cambridge, where I realized because of the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka and the great philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah that, all along, I wanted to be a person of the book, that I was put here to be a professor. But even when I went to Cambridge, I took tutorials in physics, in biology and in organic chemistry. It took me till I was 25 to finally decide that I was not going to be a doctor. And it was a hard conversation. I came back from England. I sat down with Mom and Daddy, and I said, I'm going to try to be a professor. And to my astonishment, they said, we just want you to be happy. Do as well as you can, and good luck to you.

You know, when I went off to Yale, my parents bought me a new car because - they didn't see Yale's campus till the graduation, but they bought me a car because they didn't want me - they wanted me to be amongst them, as our people say. They didn't want me to look like I was a working-class kid from West Virginia. So they bought me a new Royal Electric typewriter, bought me a new car. I had all new clothes, of course. And we stand out in front of my house, and I was - hugged my mom, and she was crying, and I was crying. And Daddy said to me, boy, if they don't treat you right, you can always come on home.

And you know what, Terry? That was the most liberating thing probably anybody's ever said to me. It was like, go up there. Do as well as you can. If you fail, as long as you studied hard, that's fine. You won't have embarrassed yourself or your family. But if they treat you bad in any way, if they're snobbish, come on home. You can go to West Virginia University like your brother, and you could be a doctor. And instead of saying, you know, don't go up there and fail, you know, it's costing all that money, it was just the reverse psychology. And that's who my parents were.

GROSS: I hope it gave your mother some solace to know that you were still Dr. Gates because of your Ph.D.

GATES: Oh, my God. My mother would call. And Rocky and I tried to - when we had families, we would spend Thanksgiving and Christmas in Piedmont at my parents' house. We got together, and we bought my parents the house that my mother used to clean when she was a little girl.

GROSS: You're kidding. Wow.

GATES: And so it was a fantasy house. So on the first night, we were all there. And we went to bed, and we were joking. And my brother said, goodnight, John-Boy. And I said, goodnight, John-Boy. And we heard this noise. It was my mother crying. And we all got out of bed. We said, what's wrong, Mom? And she said, all the people - the Thompsons (ph), for whom she worked - they treated me so bad. They had planted a $5 bill in the sofa once and accused her of stealing it. And she said, you will - she said, Skippy, you will never know. And I said, Momma, this is not the Thompsons' house anymore. This is Pauline Coleman Gates' house. And it's very emotional for me. And it was her house. And that's where she lived for the next 12 years until she passed in 1987.

GROSS: What a really beautiful story. You know, I just keep thinking that you never told your mother that you joined the church because you'd prayed to Jesus for her life to be saved, and when she survived, you followed through on the promise you made and you joined the church and made a lot of sacrifices to do it. And I just keep thinking, like, if you had told her that, that it probably would've meant so much to her.

GATES: Well, I thought it would be hubris if I did that. I thought it would be arrogance. It didn't occur to me to tell the story until I wrote "Colored People." And the reason I wrote "Colored People" was - I wrote it five years after Momma died because I realized that my two daughters, Maggie and Liza, didn't remember my mother. And we showed them - Maggie was born in 1980 and Liza 1982, and Momma died in 1987, so you know how that is. And we had taken a lot of pictures of her holding - I have one great picture of my mother's mother, Momma, and both of them holding Maggie, you know, my older daughter. And, you know, we would show them the pictures, and they would say, I just don't remember her. And - or my mother wore wigs by that time, and they would say, well, why was - her hair look so funny? And I was really hurt by that. And so I wanted to create a portrait of my mother, which is why I wrote "Colored People" in the first place as a record, a recollection, a three-dimensional portrait as best I could create it of the special person that my mother was.

GROSS: My guest is Henry Louis Gates. His new book "The Black Church" is a companion to his PBS series of the same name. We'll talk more after a short break. And Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev" about a '70s rock duo - a Black woman from Detroit and a white man from England. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SAXOPHONE QUARTET'S "COME SUNDAY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last Thursday with Henry Louis Gates. His new book "The Black Church" is a companion to the PBS series of the same name, which he hosts. He's hosted many PBS series about African and African American history. He also hosts the PBS genealogy series "Finding Your Roots." He's a professor at Harvard, where he directs the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. His new book describes how Black churches became the foundation of Black religious, political, economic and social life. He also tells his story of how when he was 12, he made a bargain with Jesus to help save his mother's life after she was hospitalized. When she survived, he kept his promise and joined the church.

When you were 12 and you joined the church, you accepted Jesus. But you were not overcome by the Holy Ghost. You were terrified of the Holy Ghost. Now, the church that you were attending was not a Pentecostal church. But a good friend of yours was a member of the Pentecostal church. There was a Pentecostal church in your neighborhood. You were so afraid of being overcome by the Holy Ghost, you'd walk on the opposite side of the street when you passed that church. Tell us about your fear and what your exposure was to the church that made you so afraid of being overcome by the Holy Ghost.

GATES: The Church of God in Christ was on Water Street (ph) on the right side of the street. And Waldon Methodist Church was about 200 yards further down the street on the left side of the street. And when I turned that corner, I crossed over to the left side of the street. And I walked down. And I zipped by the holiness church because I thought the Holy Ghost lived in the church. And I thought the Holy Ghost power was such that he could just reach out and grab me and snatch me (laughter) and grab me in the church, which is what had happened to my brother's friend, Vincent Clay (ph).

Vincent Clay was in a worship service at that church. He got up to walk out. And he later told us that a force grabbed him, turned him around and just drove him to the altar and cast him on his knees. And he began confessing his sins and speaking in tongues. I did not want that experience. I was not interested in being possessed by the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues. I found it terrifying. But I found it fascinating. And that's why I wrote that last chapter on the Holy Ghost and the beautiful and the sublime, because, as you know, the sublime is a site of terror. And that is the obvious remnant that the African American church still bears to this day from its African roots.

GROSS: Well, let's just back up a little bit. So when you were afraid of the Holy Ghost, was that part of the religious experience feeling more to you like a ghost story or a horror story then something deeply spiritual?

GATES: No, it was - that's an interesting question. I found the idea of being taken out of myself and losing my rational control as quite frightening. And what is this unknown tongue that people were speaking? And I heard people. There was some people like my Uncle Jim (ph). When he turned 60, he formed his own Pentecostal church. And we would go fishing. He was a great fisherman. And I love to fish. And we'd be out on the boat on a pond. And he would just start talking in an unknown language. And I'd say, what did you say, Uncle Jim (laughter)? He'd say, just talking to the Lord, son. Just talking to the Lord. And then he would tease me. He called me nephew, Terry, that day. And I - and he said, nephew, your daddy's church, the Episcopal church, he said, that ain't even a church. They can drink. They can cuss. They can play cards. What kind of church is that?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So at what point in your life did you become less religious and more secular?

GATES: When I went to Yale. I stopped going to church. I would go to hear - that's not exactly true. William Sloane Coffin, the famous campus minister at Yale, was the minister at Battell Chapel. And I was a student in Calhoun College, which is on the corner of College and Elm. And that's where Battell Chapel is. So I could just wake up at the last minute and walk across and hear his sermons, which weren't really about salvation. They were about the Vietnam War and about civil rights, because he was one of the early proponents of the end of American involvement in Vietnam.

And he would have amazing guest speakers. That's where I met Andy Young. Andy Young gave a sermon. And I stood in line - in the receiving line, as we call it - after his sermon. And I'll never forget it. He looked at me. He was signing books. He looked at me. He stood up. He rubbed my head. And he said, you're going to be somebody. You're going to be somebody. And I cried. I went back to my dorm, and I cried because it was kind of a laying-on-of-the-hands moment for me, that one of my heroes - he just looked at my face and said that. So I became more intellectually engaged with the church and I started to study the history of religions and philosophy.

And I was one step removed from belief. I was an observer of religion. I was an observer of spirituality. I went to TM - Transcendental Meditation - in 1974. And I had a very moving experience when I got my mantra and very liberating. I mean, it was almost as if the top of my head came off. And I thought the whole thing was a joke. And I walk in this little room. And there was a woman there. And she said, I'm going to say a word. And I want you to recite it. And I started to burst out laughing when I started saying this strange word, which I've never revealed. I was told never to reveal it. And I never have.

And all of a sudden, I had this spiritual event where it was like the top of my head opened up. And I was just overwhelmed with emotion. And tears just streamed down my face. And I was exhilarated. It was astonishing. So I know that moment of transcendence is real. I know it. I experienced it myself. I never experienced it again. I was a - I faithfully meditated and said the - my mantra. But I never had that conversion experience ever again. But I had it. And I know it's real.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Louis Gates. His new book "The Black Church" is a companion to the PBS series of the same name. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICAGO GOSPEL KEYBOARD MASTERS, ELSA HARRIS, RICHARD GIBBS AND CURTIS FONDREN'S "WALK WITH ME LORD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Henry Louis Gates. His new book "The Black Church" is a companion to his PBS series of the same name, which he hosted.

Part of your new book was written during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing fight for voting rights. Churches were closed or partially closed by the pandemic. But the role of church leaders in, for example, fighting for voting rights continues. When you were writing this book, what's an example of, like, a through line that you saw where you felt the church's activism was like, here we go again, like everything changes, nothing changes?

GATES: Well, we tend to forget that Black politics, fighting anti-Black racism was born in the church. Frederick Douglass, the most famous of all the Black abolitionists, learned to speak from the pulpit of the AME Zion Church in New Bedford, Mass., between 1838 and 1841, before he made his famous speech at the meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society on Nantucket in 1841. Three of the 16 Black men elected to Congress in Reconstruction were ministers. Before Martin Luther King emerged in the South in 1955, the face of the civil rights movement was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., as you know, who's a minister, as his father was, of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And he was a minister elected to Congress. And then Martin Luther King, Andy Young, Black mayor of Atlanta, was a minister. And John Lewis himself was an ordained minister. So the history of Black politics is coterminous with the history of the African American church. And we see that most recently in the miraculous election of Reverend Raphael Warnock, who is the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was Martin Luther King's church, and his father, Daddy King's, church. So the tradition continues.

GROSS: The church has always been important in getting out the vote. Can you talk a little bit about, like, the souls to the polls role of the church and how voter suppression has tried to limit the church's ability to get people to the polls?

GATES: Well, we can look at two examples. Everyone forgets that when Joe Biden came out of New Hampshire, virtually nobody but Joe thought he was going to get the nomination. And Representative Jim Clyburn hit that magic Black button, which is called the Network of the Black Churches, when Joe Biden came into South Carolina. They mobilized. And Biden was successful. And that changed the whole dynamic of the primaries. And then the miracle in Georgia, under the direction of Stacey Abrams, which led to the election to the Senate of Reverend Raphael Warnock was fundamentally dependent on souls to the polls, particularly the role of African American women, which has always been crucial in the Black church. So I'm very proud of the way that the church responded to this challenge because our people faced a crisis. And four more years of Donald Trump, as epitomized by the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, would have been as disastrous to the rights of African American people as was the rollback to Reconstruction in the period called redemption and the lost cause movement.

GROSS: Your book is dedicated to the memory of John Lewis, who was, of course, a congressman and a longtime voting rights activist. Was he a friend? Did you know him?

GATES: I had the pleasure of tracing Congressman Lewis' family tree on "Finding Your Roots." I revered him. I loved him. We were very good friends. And, you know, I couldn't really be his friend because I admired him so much (laughter). He was a hero to me. And what I revealed to him was that his great-great-grandparents were Tobias and Betty Carter. And they both were born into slavery sometime around 1830 in Pike County, Ala. They got married December 16, 1865, only 10 days after they were freed and 10 days after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which finally abolished slavery. And they were landowners just four years after their marriage.

But Tobias registered to vote in Alabama in 1867. And I showed John his great-great-grandfather's registration card. And, Terry, it's one of the most emotional moments in all the years that I've been doing "Finding Your Roots." As you know, often, people are moved to tears. And I give them their space. I was moved to tears when he was moved to tears. He looked at me. He looked at the voter registration certificate. And his head fell and hit the table as he wept. And we figured out that no one in his family line had voted between his great-great-grandfather and John because they had taken away the right of Black people to vote with the state constitutional conventions during redemption and the lost cause movement. And that's why the Voting Rights Act was absolutely necessary. And then he looked at me after he wiped his eyes. And he said, I guess it's in my DNA (laughter).

GROSS: That's an amazing story.

GATES: It's an amazing story. And...

GROSS: I mean, John Lewis risked his life for voting rights.

GATES: And he suffered. I mean, he went to jail numerous times. And (laughter) he was beaten so badly on Pettus Bridge, a beating, a sacrifice that he took that forced Lyndon Johnson to endorse the Voting Rights Act.

GROSS: One of the great contributions of Black churches is gospel music. And I had asked you to choose a gospel song that you particularly love that means something to you. And you chose a song by Mahalia Jackson - sung by Mahalia Jackson called "Walk In Jerusalem." And I'd like you to talk about why you chose this song and also about her importance, not just as a singer, but as somebody who really contributed to the civil rights movement.

GATES: I chose Mahalia Jackson because my father loved Mahalia Jackson, despite the fact that he was an Episcopalian. The music he loved was Black gospel music. And among all Black gospel musicians, among all Black gospel singers, he thought Mahalia Jackson was the queen. And of all of her many, many masterpieces, "Walking In Jerusalem" (ph) was his favorite. And she used to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. That's when I first saw her when I was a kid. Going to walk in Jerusalem, talk in Jerusalem. You know, it's just infectious. And you know that for her, Jerusalem was a place where you found eternal life, but it also was a place beyond racism. And she played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. She was Martin Luther King's personal spiritual adviser when Martin Luther King would have a spiritual crisis, as we all do. He would call Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night. He'd wake her up and say, Mahalia, I'm suffering. I'm having a heart time. And she would sing one of his favorite songs. His favorite was "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" (ph), which had been composed by Thomas A. Dorsey.

GROSS: You know, Mahalia Jackson, in addition to singing on the phone to Martin Luther King when he needed spiritual or, you know, just emotional support - she helped fund him when he traveled. She helped fund the Freedom Riders.

GATES: Oh, absolutely. She, like Harry Belafonte, was a blank check for the movement. If Martin asked her, she wrote the check. And so that shows another level of complexity of the relationship between the Black churches that were - in this case, a member of the Black church and a musician in the Black church - with the politics affecting the larger Black community. And that role needs to be told.

Oh, and one of the most important things she did was when Dr. King was giving the "I Have A Dream" speech. He didn't intend to use the phrase I have a dream, which he got from Prathia Hall, as we say in this series and in the book. Prathia Hall used it in a sermon. She drove him to the airport. And he turned to her and said, Prathia, for I like that phrase. You don't mind if I use it? And she said, no, I'll be flattered. And, of course, it's identified with him, but its origin is with the Black woman.

So he's on the stage in front of all those people on the Mall. And he's giving his speech - was OK. And Mahalia, who has an impeccable sense of timing, says, tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream. Remember, she's sitting right behind him. Tell them about the dream, Martin. And so he shifted gears totally in an improvisatory way and gives "I Have A Dream" speech, which he had given many, many times on the road and in his own church. And it turned in to one of the two greatest speeches/sermons, I think, in American history. The other, of course, is "I've Been To The Mountaintop," which he gave at the Charles Harrison Mason Temple. He was the founder of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis - on that night before he was so brutally slain in 1968.

GROSS: Well, before we hear Mahalia Jackson, I want to thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. It's been a pleasure to talk with you again.

GATES: Oh, thank you. You took me - you lifted me higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK IN JERUSALEM")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Way up in Jerusalem when I die.

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) God knows I'm gonna walk in Jerusalem, talk in Jerusalem, sing in Jerusalem, be in Jerusalem, high up in Jerusalem when I die. Oh, be in Jerusalem, sing in Jerusalem, shout in Jerusalem, pray in Jerusalem, high up in Jerusalem when I die. When I get down to the river, I'm gonna stick my sword in the sand, for I spy the old ship of Zion. She took a-many to the Promised Land.

GROSS: Henry Louis Gates is the author of the new book "The Black Church" a companion to the PBS series he hosts of the same name. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev," a new novel centering around a '70s rock duo that's about music, race and family secrets. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "BIG STUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.