Photo courtesy of University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Anderson in lower left corner. On front, now-iconic portrait by Richard Avedon.
It was 80 years ago today, on April 9, 1939, that acclaimed contralto Marian Anderson took the resolute stage before 75,000 people on the National Mall, overseen by a brooding Abraham Lincoln, in a free open-air Easter concert now deemed a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. At 42, Anderson had risen from poverty in South Philadelphia to become famous across Europe and the U.S. for what Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini called a voice that "comes around once in a hundred years." That blustery April day, Anderson had originally been invited to sing at D.C.'s Constitution Hall by Howard University as part of its concert series. But the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the hall and had a white-artist-only clause in every contract, banned her because she was black. The act outraged First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the group to protest the "unfortunate" decision, and many others.
The radical idea for Anderson to perform outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial, to a multiracial audience in a still-segregated city, came from NAACP executive secretary Walter White. That day, as Hitler's troops pushed across Europe and the Depression lingered on, millions hungry for a reprieve from hard times listened on the radio, and the crowd stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Before Anderson appeared, an NBC announcer invented a back-story for the venue: It wasn't due to DRA racists, but the need to "accommodate the tremendous audience that wishes to hear her." Because the site was a national monument, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes took on the day's logistics; he also gave Anderson a soaring introduction. "In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free," he proclaimed. "Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines."
Anderson climbed onto a stage ringed by a bank of microphones, regal in a fur coat, alone but for her pianist. Despite her extensive travels, she had never faced such a massive crowd, and she was reportedly terrified. She kept hey eyes closed as she sang, one of her biographers later wrote, because "it shut out what she saw in front of her, and the music took over." Years later, Anderson explained how she felt: "I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now." She began with "My Country 'Tis of Thee" - a startling choice, given the treatment she'd received at the hands of her country. Her voice was strong, her fear undetectable. She made just one change in the lyrics: In the name of solidarity, "of thee I sing" became "to thee we sing." "We cannot live alone," she later declared, noting that the moment was made possible "by many people whom we will never know."
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She also sang an aria from La favorite, Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," and three spirituals in a 30-minute concert that made her an international icon, and inspired a film, a recording and several books. Over the decades - she died at 96 - she performed across the country, at Constitution Hall - an apologetic DAR had changed their rules - and at Kennedy's inauguration. She also again took the stage of the Lincoln Memorial at 1963's March on Washington. She sang just after Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech calling for the day when "this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal," and issuing his many exhortations to "let freedom ring." Echoing him, the title of one Anderson biography is "The Sound of Freedom"; in a bittersweet touch of wishful thinking, it also calls Anderson's Lincoln Memorial performance "the concert that awakened America." Not just yet, but maybe one day.
In the words of the newsreel announcer, "colored contralto" Marian Anderson sings "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
Photo by Thomas McAvoy, Life Picture Collection/Getty Images