She sang in church choirs during her childhood. Moving (1927) to Chicago, she worked at various menial jobs and sang in churches and at revival meetings, attracting attention for her vigorous, joyful gospel style. As her reputation grew she made numerous recordings, and she gained national recognition with her Carnegie Hall debut in 1950. Jackson toured abroad and appeared on radio and at jazz festivals, refusing to sing the blues in favor of more hopeful devotional songs. At Newport, R.I., in 1958 she sang in Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige. Deeply committed to the civil-rights movement, she was closely associated with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
See her autobiography (1966); studies by P. Oliver (1968) and J. Jackson (1974).