Seventy-five years ago, on April 9, 1939, as Hitler's troops advanced in Europe and the Depression took its toll in the U.S., one of the most important musical events of the 20th century took place on the National Mall in Washington. There, just two performers, a singer and a pianist, made musical — and social — history.
At 42, contralto Marian Anderson was famous in Europe and the U.S., but she had never faced such an enormous crowd. There were 75,000 people in the audience that day, and she was terrified. Later, she wrote: "I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now."
So, in the chilly April dusk, Anderson stepped onto a stage built over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." Her first notes show no sign of nerves. Her voice is forceful and sweet. And the choice of music — that opening song — is remarkable, given the circumstances. The NBC Blue Network announcer explained the unusual venue this way: "Marian Anderson is singing this public concert at the Lincoln Memorial because she was unable to get an auditorium to accommodate the tremendous audience that wishes to hear her."
That was hardly the story. According to Anderson biographer Allan Keiler, she was invited to sing in Washington by Howard University as part of its concert series. And because of Anderson's international reputation, the university needed to find a place large enough to accommodate the crowds. Constitution Hall was such a place, but the Daughters of the American Revolution owned the hall.
"They refused to allow her use of the hall," Keiler says, "because she was black and because there was a white-artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR."
Like the nation's capital, Constitution Hall was segregated then. Black audiences could sit in a small section of the balcony, and did, when a few black performers appeared in earlier years. But after one such singer refused to perform in a segregated auditorium, the DAR ruled that only whites could appear on their stage.
One of the members of the DAR was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Outraged by the decision, Roosevelt sent a letter of resignation and wrote about it in her weekly column, "My Day." "They have taken an action which has been widely criticized in the press," she wrote. "To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning."
The DAR did not relent. According to Keiler, the idea to sing outdoors came from Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP. Since the Lincoln Memorial was a national monument, the logistics for the day fell to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. It was Ickes who led Anderson onto the stage on April 9, 1939.
'Of Thee We Sing'
She began with "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" — also known as "America" — a deeply patriotic song. When she got to the third line of that well-known tune, she made a change. Instead of "of thee I sing" she sang "to thee we sing."
A quiet, humble person, Anderson often used "we" when speaking about herself. Years after the concert, she explained why: "We cannot live alone," she said. "And the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me, has been brought about by many people whom we will never know."
But her change of lyric — from "I" to "we" — can be heard as an embrace, implying community and group responsibility. Never a civil rights activist, Anderson believed prejudice would disappear if she performed and behaved with dignity. But dignity came at a price throughout her 25-minute Lincoln Memorial concert. Biographer Keller says she appeared frightened before every song, yet the perfect notes kept coming.
"I think it was because she was able to close her eyes and shut out what she saw in front of her," Keiler says. "And simply the music took over."
After "America," she sang an aria from La favorite by Gaetano Donizetti, then Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria." She ended the concert with three spirituals, "Gospel Train," "Trampin'" and "My Soul is Anchored in the Lord."
On that stage, before a bank of microphones, the Lincoln statue looming behind her, iconic photographs reveal Anderson as a regal figure that cloudy, blustery day. Although the sun broke out as she began to sing, she wrapped her fur coat around her against the April wind.
Anderson's mink coat is preserved at the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington. It's kept in a large archival box in cold storage and stuffed with acid-free tissue to preserve its shape. The lining of the coat is embroidered with gold threads in a paisley pattern, and the initials M A are monogrammed inside.
Whether wrapped in that coat or gowned for a concert hall, Anderson, Museum historian Gail Lowe says, touched everyone who heard her: "Her voice was a very rich contralto and so those kind of low notes ... can resonate and match one's heartbeat."
Conductor Arturo Toscanini said a voice like Anderson's "comes around once in a hundred years."
'Genuis, Like Justice, Is Blind'
When Ickes introduced Anderson, he told the desegregated crowd — which stretched all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument — "In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines."
And genius had touched Marian Anderson.
Anderson inspired generations and continues to do so. An anniversary concert will take place at Constitution Hall, which denied her 75 years ago. A few featured performers are Jessye Norman, Dionne Warwick, American Idol winner Candice Glover, bass Soloman Howard and soprano Alyson Cambridge.
Cambridge first heard about Anderson while she was a young music student in Washington. "They said she was the first African-American to sing at the Met," Cambridge says. At 12 years old, Cambridge was just beginning voice lessons, but she knew that New York's Metropolitan Opera was it for an opera singer.
These days, Cambridge finds she has to explain the great singer to others. "Some people sort of look at me with a raised eyebrow — 'Who's Marian Anderson?' " Cambridge says. And she continues, "She really broke down the barriers for all African-American artists and performers."
The Lincoln Memorial concert made Anderson an international celebrity. It overshadowed the rest of her long life as a performer — she was 96 when she died in 1993. Eventually she did sing at Constitution Hall. By that time, the DAR had apologized and changed its rules. Anderson rarely spoke of that historic April day, and Keiler says when she did, there was no rancor.
"You never heard in her voice, a single tone of meanness, bitterness, blame, it was simply lacking," he says. "There is something saintly in that. Something deeply human and good."
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.