Marian Anderson Sings
Refusing to take “no” for
an answer can bring about change that was thought to be impossible. In 1939,
Marian Anderson proved this to over 75,000 people gathered at the Lincoln
Memorial in Washington, D.C., and to millions of radio listeners nationwide.
Marian Anderson was born
in Philadelphia in 1897 and began singing in the church choir at
age 6. Anderson received private singing lessons after being
refused admission to music school on the basis of her color. The contralto
became an overnight sensation following her debut with the New York
Philharmonic in 1925. Anderson
appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1928 and toured Europe during the early 1930s. In 1939, she was denied permission to perform
at Constitution Hall in Washington by the Daughters of the American Revolution, again because of her
skin color. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and thousands of other members
of the DAR resigned their memberships in protest.
Secretary of the Interior
Harold L. Ickes, an outspoken supporter of civil rights and civil liberties,
arranged for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. He heard the
suggestion from his assistant Oscar Chapman, who as a child was almost expelled
from his Virginia school for hanging a portrait of Abraham Lincoln
in his schoolroom. In her children’s book Sweet Land of Liberty, Deborah
Hopkinson tells the story of how Oscar Chapman “was stirring things up, just
like Mr. Lincoln. But maybe that was the only way to get things to change.”
Holding the concert at the
Lincoln Memorial changed the purpose of the concert from an entertaining
evening for Washington’s elite in an isolated concert hall to an
open-air, free event for all to enjoy. With Lincoln symbolically watching Marian perform for thousands
of his countrymen, Marian sang to her country instead of about it: “My country,
‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, to thee we sing.” Lincoln’s lifework was cut short, but others were carrying
it on. Onlookers may have imagined seeing a smile flash across Lincoln’s marble face on that monumental day, when
liberty, freedom, and change hung in the air as clearly as Ms. Anderson’s
Ms. Anderson set the stage
for another great gathering just 24 years later. During the centennial
celebration year of the Emancipation Proclamation, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. made his famous I Have a Dream speech from the same location.
When the Lincoln Memorial
was dedicated in 1922, no-one could have forecasted that the monument would
serve as a place for people to unite in the fight for liberty – but they should
have. Lincoln’s two greatest speeches are inscribed on the walls
of the Memorial – the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Ms.
Anderson and Dr. King added their speeches those marble walls.