At the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson Delivered an Easter Sunday Performance for the Ages
On Easter Sunday seventy years ago, black singer Marian Anderson thrilled a huge crowd that had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear one of the most memorable concerts ever delivered on Federal property. Though not as celebrated today as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream speech” at the same venue, Marian Anderson’s rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a very dramatic moment in the long and complicated history of race relations in America. And it was, in retrospect, one of the National Park System’s finest moments.
The spring of 1939 found America still locked in the Great Depression and still burdened with institutionalized racial segregation. This was the era of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and blatant bigotry. It would be two more decades before the civil rights movement would take hold. It was not a good time for an African American to be looking for an even break.
In that spring of 1939, contralto Marian Anderson was riding high. She had packed them in during musical tours all over Europe and was doing 70 or so recitals a year to sellout crowds on this side of the Atlantic. She was, without a doubt, one of the finest female singers of her era.
And yet, because she was black, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Marian to perform before an integrated audience at the renowned (and DAR-owned) Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. The Federal government, which was not exactly a paragon of racial tolerance, also refused her permission to perform in a Washington, DC, high school auditorium. These racially-motivated insults, which were publicized throughout America and the world, pushed Marian to the center of what became one of the most heavily publicized events in the pre-World War II history of race relations in America.
What happened next was amazing. With the help of FDR’s intervention (Eleanor Roosevelt also spoke up), arrangements were made for Marian to present an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Think about that for a moment. The feds wouldn’t let Marian perform in a federally-controlled high school in the District. The DAR wouldn’t let her perform in what was one of the District’s prime concert venues (it was later home to the National Symphony Orchestra for several decades). But she was allowed to perform on the “neutral territory” that was the NPS-administered Lincoln Memorial.
A crowd of at least 75,000 showed up at the Lincoln Memorial on that memorable Easter Sunday in 1939. (See the accompanying photo.) Millions more listened in on their radios. A Newsreel crew was there to capture the performance on film, too, and for that we can be very grateful. Marian’s rendering of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was the highlight of the performance.
See it for yourself at this site.
Postscript: Marian did get to sing at Constitution Hall, and in fairly short order, too. In 1943, with World War II raging, she accepted the DAR’s invitation to sing there at a benefit for the American Red Cross. Marian liked Constitution Hall and didn’t hold a grudge for the DAR’s 1939 snub. Constitution Hall was the first stop on her farewell tour in 1964. Marian died on April 9, 1993, having lived to see the end of institutionalized racial discrimination in America.