Whether she was singing Bellini’s “Casta Diva” or the heart-shattering spiritual, “Crucifixion,” Marian Anderson’s artistry touched people to their core.
Conductor Arturo Toscanini famously called her plush contralto “a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.” “The roof is too low for your voice,” said her friend, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. His compatriot Kosti Vehanen—Anderson’s piano accompanist for hundreds of performances, including her legendary Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939—recalled hearing her for the first time at a rehearsal in Helsinki. Anderson’s voice was “filled with deep, tragic feeling,” he later wrote, “as though the sound came from under the earth.”
In 1939, when the 42-year-old African-American artist was chosen by history for a role larger than any concert stage, she was already an international star, hailed for her mastery of a wide repertoire of opera and classical pieces—and of the inspirational black church music she had absorbed growing up in Philadelphia and championed wherever she appeared. Anderson had performed for royalty in Europe, where she enjoyed a degree of respect and freedom she had not routinely experienced in her own country, and for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a dinner in his private quarters in 1936. She was the first African-American invited to perform at the White House.
Yet no amount of excellence or renown was sufficient to gain Marian Anderson—or any other black performer of that time—a booking at Washington, D.C.’s largest concert venue at the time, Constitution Hall, which is part of the national headquarters of the patriotic service organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.). Throughout the 1930s, civil rights organizations, unions and performing arts groups tried to break down racial barriers in D.C. performing spaces; Constitution Hall was one of the larger targets. But when representatives from Howard University invited Anderson to D.C. to perform in 1939, a primarily local struggle became a major national controversy.
After Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, was rebuffed in his attempt to schedule her appearance in the hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R., writing about her decision in a syndicated column published on February 27. The First Lady’s protest was swiftly amplified by the NAACP, the American Federation of Teachers, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and others. With the blessing of President Roosevelt, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes arranged for Anderson to perform on Easter Sunday before 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial and an NBC radio audience numbering in the millions.
Although she was nervous beforehand that her voice would fail her, Anderson was a brilliant and dignified presence that day, earning thunderous applause and an entirely unsought standing as a seminal figure in the civil rights movement. Among her enthralled radio listeners was the 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Anderson would join 24 years later at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. “King later said that her 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert was a formative experience for him—it was imprinted on his mind,” says Sean Wilentz, the Princeton University historian and author of The Rise of American Democracy. “And, whether it was a conscious allusion or not, Dr. King quoted one of the centerpiece songs of that concert at a dramatic moment in his ’63 address: My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…Let freedom ring!”
In the aftermath of the Lincoln Memorial concert, the D.A.R. was regularly challenged to abandon its policy of excluding black performers from Constitution Hall. Hurok made repeated attempts to book Anderson there; he was flatly turned down each time.
When U.S. went to war, however, the possibility of a thaw finally developed. The D.A.R. reached out to Anderson in September, 1942, inviting her to perform in Constitution Hall as part of a concert series for the benefit of the Army Emergency Relief Fund. Although all parties agreed on the worthiness of the cause, there were months of rancorous back-and-forth about the arrangements. “She agreed [to appear], if there would be no segregation of Negroes at the concert, and if the recital would set a precedent allowing her use of the hall in the future,” reported the New York Times. “The D.A.R. declined her terms.”
In truth, others in her camp were less conciliatory toward the D.A.R. than Anderson herself, and she did not want the impasse to prevent her from contributing to the Allied war effort. Of perhaps equal significance, Brandeis University scholar Allan Keiler writes in Marian Anderson: A Singer's Journey, “Anderson saw it as an opportunity to repay one genuine gesture of goodwill with another.” The compromise agreement was itself historic: Anderson would finally perform in Constitution Hall, before a fully integrated audience, but with no commitments about future engagements or any change in the openly racist booking policy.
The momentous recital took place on January 7, 1943; the proceeds of $6500—over $88,000 in today’s dollars—were earmarked for United China Relief, another wartime aid charity. The Times reported that the concert drew “a distinguished and a capacity audience,” filling the hall’s 3,844 seats. Mrs. Roosevelt entered her box to a hearty burst of applause; among the other dignitaries in the house were several members of FDR’s cabinet, the Chinese ambassador and Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas.
“Present also throughout an audience as unique as it was distinguished,” the Times noted, “were scores of Negro music lovers, ranging from Dr. Mordecai Johnson from Howard University to humble house servants who turned out to hear and applaud Miss Anderson.” She performed selections from Schubert, Haydn, Massenet, Griffes, Sadero and Quilter, and four Negro spirituals, including “Crucifixion” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” “… The program was received with rounds of applause and with an intense emotional response as Miss Anderson led her audience in conclusion in singing the Star-Spangled Banner.”
Anderson’s relationship with the D.A.R. grew warmer over the years, at least in a public, symbolic sense. In 1953, and again in 1956, she headlined at Constitution Hall before integrated audiences. In 1964, she chose to launch her farewell American tour there. And in 1992, a year before her death, the organization awarded her its Centennial Medal for outstanding service to the nation. When the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor in 2005, members of Anderson’s family suggested that the unveiling ceremony be held at D.A.R. headquarters.
It’s difficult to know how trying and painful this journey was for Anderson herself. For weeks before the Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939, Anderson was questioned at every turn by reporters. Saddened and ashamed by the controversy, she later recalled, “I did not want to talk. I particularly did not want to say anything about the D.A.R.” She added, hinting at feelings that may have simmered within, “I was not made for hand-to-hand combat.”
Yet Anderson also resisted demonizing the organization that had so pointedly disrespected her—and millions of other Americans who valued fairness and decency.
“It was comforting to have concrete expressions of support for an essential principle,” she wrote in her 1956 memoir, My Lord, What a Morning. “It was touching to hear from a local manager in a Texas city that a block of two hundred tickets had been purchased by the community’s D.A.R. people. It was also heartening; it confirmed my conviction that a whole group should not be condemned because an individual or section of the group does a thing that is not right.”
Constitution Hall will mark the 75th anniversary of the Lincoln Memorial concert this week with a program dedicated to Anderson, “Of Thee We Sing,” headlined by Jessye Norman. Although that event commemorates an undeniable low point in the D.A.R.’s past, “People shouldn’t forget,” says Bren Landon, a spokeswoman for the organization. “We need to know about it. It’s part of the D.A.R.’s history, and we are an organization that is about preserving our history. So it’s time to embrace it and show how that was in the past and is not what the D.A.R. is today, to show that Marian Anderson is a person we should be celebrating.”
Long before and long after Anderson’s rendezvous with destiny, what she herself celebrated was a profound humanity that found its greatest expression in her own unfettered voice.