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Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was one of the great voices of the 20th Century. Her rich, vibrant contralto and extensive vocal range captivated audiences worldwide while the grace and dignity she displayed as an artist and as a citizen of the world made her a symbolic figure in one of the most important events in the struggle for civil rights.
By 1939, Marian Anderson had performed for audiences worldwide. Despite her successes abroad, racial discrimination in the United States continued to create obstacles in her career. Howard University wanted to host Anderson for a concert engagement in Washington, D.C., and approached the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) about using Constitution Hall. The DAR had a policy that barred the use of the hall by African American performers, and Howard had made similar requests in the past without success. Once again, the DAR denied the concert planners’ request.
The DAR’s refusal to let Anderson perform at Constitution Hall became a national story when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned her membership in the organization: “You had the opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.” In response, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged for Anderson to give a public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. It was a watershed moment in civil rights history, as Marian Anderson’s presence provided a voice for the principles of freedom, justice, and equality.
The essential point about wanting to appear in the hall was that... I felt I had that right as an artist. I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people.—Marian Anderson in her autobiography, My Lord What a Morning.
Photographs by Robert S. Scurlock, Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
At 5:00 p.m., Marian Anderson sang in front of a crowd of 75,000: “My Country tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty of thee We Sing.” Anderson’s slight change in the lyric, “I” to “We” perfectly captured the significance of the moment, echoing the collective sense of responsibility shared by all on that important day.
Photograph by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian Institution
Shantung silk jacket (redesigned in 1993) and black velvet skirt worn by Marian Anderson.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ginette DePriest in memory of James DePriest