Marian Anderson Sings

March 2008


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 voice.


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.