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1939: Marian Anderson Sings to the Nation

Barred from Washington's 'Whites Only' Constitution Hall, Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial—and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement

By Suzanne Bilyeu

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By late afternoon on April 9, 1939, a crowd of 75,000 had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It was Easter Sunday, and they had come to hear a concert like no other the nation had ever witnessed. At 5 p.m., Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes appeared on the steps to introduce the performer—Marian Anderson.

"In this great auditorium under the sky," Ickes said, "all of us are free."

Wearing a long fur coat on a chilly afternoon, Anderson stepped up to a row of microphones that would carry her voice to a radio audience across the nation, as well as to the throng of whites, blacks, college students, and government officials gathered before her. She began to sing: "My country, 'tis of thee/Sweet land of liberty . . ."

The granddaughter of slaves, Anderson had performed in concert halls all over the world. At the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she had sung at the White House. But she had been barred from singing at Washington's most prestigious venue, Constitution Hall, because she was black.

That decision, by the hall's owner, the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), would have significant, if unintended, consequences for the nation. With the help of President Roosevelt's administration, Anderson instead gave a public concert 70 years ago—an event that raised the nation's consciousness about race in America and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.

The concert "became a point of organized protest against racial injustice in America," says Juan Williams of Fox News and National Public Radio, author of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. "But for the first time, it was protest with the stamp of the government behind it."

By the time she reluctantly became a national symbol in 1939, Anderson was already recognized not only in the U.S. but in Europe as an accomplished singer. That success hadn't come easily. As a girl in Philadelphia, she had displayed remarkable vocal gifts singing with her church choir. But since most classical music schools wouldn't accept blacks, she studied privately with vocal teachers.

In 1922, at 25, she began touring the United States, performing mostly at black churches and colleges in the South. Anderson and the pianist who accompanied her rode in filthy "Jim Crow" cars on segregated trains, and few hotels or restaurants would accommodate them. In train stations, there were separate waiting areas for blacks.

A Segregated Capital

"I knew about the separate waiting rooms," Anderson wrote in her autobiography My Lord, What a Morning. "But no matter how much you are prepared and steeled for them, they have their effect on you." Like most classical musicians at the time, Anderson knew that she would have to study and perform in Europe to be taken seriously. In 1930, she was awarded a fellowship to study in Berlin and gave a concert there to rave reviews.

For the next few years, she sang in Europe, and also performed in concert halls in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, building a strong following among both blacks and whites.

When she performed in Washington, still a segregated city in the 1930s, a theater or high school auditorium had to be found to accommodate a black singer and a racially mixed audience.

A singer of Anderson's stature would ordinarily have been expected to perform at Constitution Hall. The owner, the D.A.R., is a women's organization of descendants of those who fought on the American side in the Revolution; Constitution Hall, just off the National Mall a few blocks from the White House, is part of its national headquarters, and at the time was home to the National Symphony and the Washington Opera.

But the D.A.R. allowed only whites to perform there, and when concert promoters decided to challenge the policy in 1939 and requested the use of the hall for a recital by Anderson, they were told it was "unavailable."

Anderson, however, had some important allies in the Roosevelt administration—most notably Mrs. Roosevelt, who had been using her position as First Lady to advocate for social causes, such as ending racial disparities in public education and racial inequality in the military.

When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) urged musicians and other public figures to send telegrams to the D.A.R. in support of Anderson, one of the first to do so was Mrs. Roosevelt, herself a D.A.R. member. She wrote that Washington shouldn't be "deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist." The N.A.A.C.P. pointed out the irony that a venue named after the Constitution would exclude blacks. Interior Secretary Ickes also wrote the D.A.R., calling their decision "an astounding discrimination against equal rights."

But the D.A.R. remained steadfast, leading Eleanor Roosevelt to publicly resign her membership. "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me your organization has failed," she wrote in her letter of resignation.

Senators & Justices

With Constitution Hall unwilling to host Anderson, Ickes, who as Interior Secretary controlled access to federal parks and monuments, stepped in at the request of the N.A.A.C.P. to arrange an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial. (Ickes first asked Franklin Roosevelt for permission, and the President reportedly said: "I don't care if she sings from the top of the Washington Monument, as long as she sings.")

When April 9 arrived, a special detail of the Washington police was dispatched for crowd control and to protect against possible disruptions by groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

But the crowd was peaceful, and enormous. By the time Anderson began to sing, it stretched the entire length of the Mall—from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Several Senators and Supreme Court Justices were seated near the platform as Anderson sang a selection of classical songs, Italian arias, and black spirituals.

At the end of the half-hour recital, the audience went wild with applause. "I can't tell you what you have done for me today," Anderson told the crowd. "I thank you from the bottom of my heart again and again."

Anderson's powerful performance, and the support she had gotten from the Roosevelts, had a lasting impact on the nation.

"She performed magnificently that day, clearly revealing the ignorance of American racism," says Aldon D. Morris, author of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. "She also inspired African-Americans to challenge racial inequality because she took such a public stand."

Although the concert made Anderson a legendary figure in the struggle for civil rights, she later wrote that she'd been uncomfortable with the controversy: "I was saddened and ashamed. I was sorry for the people who had precipitated the affair. I felt their behavior stemmed from a lack of understanding." (The D.A.R. amended its policy in 1952, and Anderson appeared at a desegregated Constitution Hall the next year.)

The 1939 concert marked the beginning of decades of dramatic changes involving race in America (see timeline). Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball eight years later, in 1947, when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. And the following year, President Harry S. Truman integrated the U.S. military.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. A year later, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and another chapter in the struggle for civil rights began.

Anderson would sing again at the Lincoln Memorial. This time, it was before a crowd of 200,000 at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

In 2005, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of Anderson, who died at age 96 in 1993. The dedication ceremony was held at Constitution Hall.

"We deeply regret that Marian Anderson was not given the opportunity to perform her 1939 Easter concert in Constitution Hall," said Presley Merritt Wagoner, president of the D.A.R. "I stand before you today wishing that history could be rewritten, knowing that it cannot, and assuring you that the D.A.R. has learned from the past."