04/09 – Let Marian Sing!

Marian Anderson performs at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Anderson, an incredibly humble and soft-spoken performer, became the focal point of a much larger American reaction to lingering racist attitudes. (Smithsonian Magazine)

On this day in 1939, Marian Anderson – a classical vocalist from Philadelphia – sang for a massive crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Initially hoping to perform at the Constitution Hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR, a group of women descended from America’s founding fathers), Anderson was prevented from using the venue because of her African-American heritage. The DAR argued that, because they were unable to provide Blacks-only washrooms for Anderson’s concert, the event was impossible. A committee of African-American community leaders, led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was convened, and a massive effort to “Let Marian sing!” went underway.

A telegram from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to John Lovell Jr. of Howard University in February of 1939. Roosevelt later enlisted the help of her husband, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to get Anderson a stage at the Lincoln Memorial. (FDR Presidential Library)

DAR member and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization in disgust and helped rally support for the new Marian Anderson Citizen’s Committee (MACC). Although Roosevelt’s help was crucial in gaining Anderson a venue, the movement was primarily an African-American effort. As the movement gained public support, the American Secretary of the Interior was pressured into granting access to the Lincoln Memorial for Anderson’s concert. The location was significant because of president Abraham Lincoln‘s role in the emancipation of America’s slaves, and the symbolism was conveyed strongly as Anderson performed on Easter Sunday for a de-segregated crowd of 75,000. Set against a backdrop of the rise of nationalism and “scientific racism” elsewhere in the world, Anderson’s landmark concert – a milestone in the American Civil Rights movement – is all the more significant.

“In these days of racial intolerance so crudely expressed in the Third Reich, an action such as the DAR’s ban. . . seems all the more deplorable.”

The Richmond-Times Dispatch, 1939

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