This coming Easter marks the 80th anniversary of the concert that, long before the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, established the Lincoln Memorial as sacred space for protesting racial injustice in America.
On Easter Sunday 1939, Marian Anderson, then America’s best-known classical singer, gave a free concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being denied the opportunity to perform at Washington, D. C.’s Constitution Hall. Anderson was African-American. Constitution Hall had a “white artists only” policy.
In 1939 Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert was celebrated by many as a near-perfect blend of art and politics. Today, at a time when the Trump administration continually fosters racial tension, Anderson’s concert seems even more remarkable than it originally did.
Anderson, who was born in 1897, was at the peak of her career in 1939. In 1925 she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic, and in the ’30s she became a success in Europe. During a Scandinavian tour she impressed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius so much that he dedicated his song “Solitude” to her, and in 1935, after listening to her perform at Salzburg, the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini told Anderson, “A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.”
The battle that led directly to Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert, as Allan Keiler has shown in his biography, Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey, began in early 1939 when Howard University asked to use Constitution Hall for a concert by Anderson. After its request was turned down, Howard officials appealed for help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose executive secretary, Walter White, was a close friend of Anderson.
In late January, White went public with a letter he sent to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) the owners Constitution Hall, asking them to change their “white artists only” policy. The DAR answered White’s letter with a press release declaring there was nothing exceptional in its policy. “The rules governing the use of Constitution Hall are in accordance with the policy of theaters, auditoriums, hotels, and public schools of the District of Columbia,” the DAR’s president insisted.
A month later, Eleanor Roosevelt lent her prestige to the controversy, now widely covered in the media, by announcing in her “My Day” national newspaper column that she was giving up her membership in the DAR to protest its segregationist stance.
The First Lady’s defense of Anderson did not come out of the blue. In 1936 Eleanor Roosevelt had invited Anderson to perform at the White House and had begun a friendship with her that would last until Roosevelt’s death in 1962. In a 1936 “My Day” column, Roosevelt made a point of letting the country know how much she admired Anderson, writing, “My husband and I had a rare treat last night listening to Marian Anderson.”
In the wake of the DAR’s negative press release, Anderson and her supporters considered giving a free, open-air concert in the small park in front of Constitution Hall. But by March a grander idea, endorsed by both the NAACP and Anderson’s manager, impresario Sol Hurok, emerged. Anderson would, if it could be arranged, sing at the Lincoln Memorial.
Once again, Eleanor Roosevelt’s influence became critical. The Lincoln Memorial was under the control of Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior, and before the liberal Ickes could sign off on a concert, he needed the approval of President Roosevelt. On this occasion, FDR, who throughout his years at office was very cautious on racial matters, threw caution to the winds, and quickly gave his assent.
The concert that followed was path-breaking for the nation and the Lincoln Memorial. Seventeen years earlier, as Christopher Thomas has recounted in his study The Lincoln Memorial & American Life, African-Americans in the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial dedication were confined to a “colored section” and the dedication speech by President Warren Harding emphasized Lincoln’s role in uniting the nation rather than his role in ending slavery.
In 1939, the emphasis was entirely different. Speaking to the nation over NBC and addressing a crowd of 75,000 that included Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York, Secretary of the Interior Ickes declared, “When God gave us this wonderful outdoors and the sun, the moon, and the stars, He made no distinction of race, or creed, or color.”
In her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, Marian Anderson recalled that when she first looked out at the crowd, “I felt for a moment as though I was choking.” But she quickly regained her composure and presented her audience with a full program that ranged from “America” to Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”
Two months later Anderson returned to Washington to sing at the White House at a reception for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England, and soon after that, she was invited to sing at the world premiere in Springfield, Illinois, of John Ford’s film Young Mr. Lincoln.
The political symbolism behind both invitations was unmistakable, but Anderson made a point of treating what she had accomplished with great modesty. During World War II, when Anderson sang at a desegregated Constitution Hall in a concert for war relief, she did not crow over how the DAR had been forced to change its ways. “There was no sense of triumph,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall, and I was happy to sing in it.”
It would not be until 1955, when she was past her singing prime, that Anderson was finally invited to make her New York Metropolitan Opera debut in the role of the sorceress, Ulrica, in Giuseppi Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). The standing ovation that greeted Anderson when the curtain rose lasted for nearly five minutes, but the real beneficiaries of her debut as the first African-American soloist at the Met would be her successors, the African-American sopranos Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle.
In Anderson’s later years, honors poured in. President Eisenhower appointed her to serve as a delegate to the United Nations. She would sing at his inauguration at 1957 and at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and in 1978, she would be among the first group of artists to receive Kennedy Center Honors.
Anderson would return to the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington, but this time she was not alone as a performer. She was able to join a new generation of singers—Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Odetta, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, and the Freedom Singers—for whom politics and music were inseparable.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.