Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marian Anderson: The Contralto Who Launched the Civil Rights Movement

Heather Cox Richardson

April 9, 1939, fifty-four years to the day after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant, brilliant contralto Marian Anderson launched the popular civil rights movement.

Born on February 27, 1897, into a musical family in Philadelphia,
Anderson was the granddaughter of a slave. Her astonishing voice caught people’s attention when she was only six. She began to sing in church choirs and, as she got older, sang for pay at local events. Poverty and prejudice kept her from obtaining even a high school education, but her neighbors raised money to enable her to study music privately after an all-white music academy refused her admittance.

A few successful New York concerts could not break through the racial prejudice of 1920s America, but Europeans recognized her talent. A European tour in the early 1930s was a wild success, with composers writing for her and fans flocking to hear the young singer with, as conductor Arturo Toscanini said, a voice heard once in a hundred years.

Although her European success helped to raise her American profile, the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in their concert venue, Constitution Hall, in 1939. Because of this, some angry members resigned from the organization, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt worked with the leader of the NAACP, Walter White, and the Secretary of the Interior to arrange for Ms. Anderson’s concert to take place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the monument to the president who had led the nation to emancipation.

On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Ms. Anderson stood before an integrated crowd of 75,000 people and began her concert by singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Millions more people listened to the concert on the radio, and heard Ms. Anderson change the words in the first verse from “of thee I sing” to “of thee we sing,” in subtle acknowledgement that she had become the symbol of a nascent civil rights movement.

The Anderson concert consecrated the Lincoln Memorial, which had only been completed in 1922, as a place of protest for civil rights. When, twenty-four years later, civil rights leaders organized a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, they asked Ms. Anderson to sing at the rally. She did, and then she listened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tell the crowd he had a dream.

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