One fitting chapter in the story of the Civil Rights movement is the story of the first famous African American whose magnificent voice was heard by thousands gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Reverend Martin Luther King’s fine baritone was the second such voice, but his predecessor’s was a contralto so divine that the great conductor Arturo Toscanini called it “a voice that comes once in a hundred years.”
That voice, Marian Anderson’s, sang in Lincoln’s shadow this week (April 9) in 1939, and — like King — millions of others heard her via radio, which broadcast her concert around the country.
Anderson’s concert was history-making in one other way, for it should have been given two months earlier. That is when Washington’s most prominent black institution of higher learning, Howard University, attempted to rent out DAR Constitution Hall in downtown D.C. as a showcase for Anderson’s talents. Only a hall with magnificent acoustics would do for a voice such as Anderson’s, and at that time Constitution Hall was such a place.
Alas, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which owned Constitution Hall, discriminated against black artists and would not permit it. Even though Anderson had already performed at Carnegie Hall, the White House, and in prominent concert halls throughout Europe, Howard U. would have to look elsewhere.
DAR’s decision did not sit well with many prominent Americans, none more so than one of DAR’s own board members, Eleanor Roosevelt, who at the time was also serving her second term as America’s First Lady. As a result, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned from DAR, as did several other members, causing the organization much embarrassment.
But the Daughters stuck to their guns, so Mrs. Roosevelt used her influence to arrange for Ms. Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Critics raved about her performance, which, thanks to DAR’s discriminatory policies, was heard by millions more than it otherwise would have been.
In the wake of her Lincoln Memorial concert Anderson went on to even greater fame, singing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York (where Toscanini conducted her), and performing at several presidential inaugurals. She also used her renown to promote many social causes, including Civil Rights, for which she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Congressional Gold Medal and, fittingly, the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.
Oh, and even with her busy schedule, a few years later Anderson still found time to accept an invitation to perform at an event to raise money for the millions of starving people in China. The venue was DAR Constitution Hall. The event sponsor was a somewhat chagrined, but more enlightened, Daughters of the American Revolution.