Regular readers of this blog know that the legacy of singer Marian Anderson looms large in my consciousness. My mother held her up as a hero. My sister was named for her. My father, a contemporary, was apparently smitten with her.
One of the first assignments as an editorial writer for the Boston Globe was to write a piece in honor of the 50th anniversary of Anderson’s concert on the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday 1939.
In that first Globe editorial, published on April 9, 1989, I wrote:
“Fifty years ago today, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 awed spectators and offered up her brilliant operatic contralto.
The concert was a triumph in an era of legal and customary segregation. Anderson, by then an accomplished performer in the US, Europe and South America, had hoped to perform at Washington’s Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform there because she was black. Amid protests from musicians and public figures, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, and with her help, the show went on at the Lincoln Memorial.
Since then, Anderson has been a symbol of pride and achievement. Introducing her at the Lincoln Memorial that Easter Sunday in 1939, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes said: “Genius knows no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such a voice as lifts any individual above his fellows as a matter of exulted pride to any race.”
Unbeknownst to me then, my father had written about that concert in 1939:
“‘Whereas only about four thousand persons usually listen to her concert, seventy-five thousand persons in a visible audience and millions in an invisible audience heard Marian Anderson sing her program of triumph on Easter Sunday afternoon in the Lincoln Memorial Park within striking distance of the Capitol’s dome.
Miss Anderson’s unusually large audience was swept to her on the wings of bigotry and racial intolerance. Since a couple of nations in Europe seem to vie with each other in acts of racial persecution, it seems to be Uncle Sam’s serious ambition today to be on the right side of the pale – a sort of see-how-good-I-am attitude.
America’s escutcheon is well blotched with racial intolerance, discrimination and persecution. Up to now it’s the Negro who is borne the brunt, if not all, of this form of treatment. Lynching, ruthless lynchings, the Scottsboro Boys are inerasable marks. Scoldings, however, from within and jeers without are gradually bringing about actual efforts to earn herself a cleaner slate.
The old Devils of the American Revolution ran true to the Old America and cried ‘color’ to Miss Anderson. . . . But seeking no ally with Nazism and Fascism, official America loaned Miss Anderson the Lincoln Memorial Park and facilities for a worldwide audience. “
Coincidentally, Anderson died on April 8, 1993, almost exactly 54 years to the day after her triumphant concert. In another Globe editorial, I wrote that to my mother Anderson “represented a triumph over segregation and a counterweight to Aunt Jemima images.”
“As a youngster, Anderson was denied admission to a Philadelphia music school because she was black. She was given the keys to Atlantic City, but was not allowed to stay in a hotel there. When she sang in segregated concert halls, she demanded that seats be allotted to black ticket buyers in every section of the auditorium. . . Anderson often referred to herself with modest detachment. But for several generations of black women in America such modesty is unnecessary. Marian Anderson’s name and her memory are synonymous with the magnificence of her voice.”