The story of Marian Anderson

I don’t write as much about history in this space as I’d like to. But Marian Anderson‘s story is one of my favorites, so I want to spend a few minutes retelling it here. It says something about where we were in this country, and how we can all move to someplace better.

If you haven’t ever heard her voice–which is something so unique I can’t do it justice–here’s a snippet of it. Her concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, which was 73 years ago today, came about because she was denied the right to sing at Constitution Hall. Yes, it was racially motivated. And yes, it could have been a moment where the forces of bigotry carried the day. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady of the United States at that time, resigned from the DAR in protest. She wrote a simple, one page letter explaining why, and then worked to offer an alternate setting that was much bigger, and more notable, than Constitution Hall itself. Roosevelt followed her conscience, and her position of notoriety guaranteed that her actions would be noticed.

Besides hosting Marian Anderson’s free concert on Easter Sunday, which attracted 75,000 people to the National Mall, the Lincoln Memorial was the site of the March on Washington in 1963. The march is best known for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but one of the many musical performers that day was–you guessed it–Marian Anderson.

That moment must have been a powerful one for her, all those years after her first performance on that spot. Changes had occurred in America, but there was much that still needed to change. And as current events have shown, it’s still a work in progress when it comes to racial matters in this country. We’re not out of the woods in this regard, and I don’t know that we ever will be.

Marian Anderson’s portrait hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s national portrait gallery in Washington, DC, and I told my daughter about who she was when we visited last year. My daughter, who was seven at the time, didn’t understand what the problem was about, and I suppose that’s a good thing.

But the forces that made Marian Anderson’s largest public performance necessary still exist in some form, and they probably always will. All that any of us can do is to stand up to it, like Eleanor Roosevelt did, in the hope that hearts and minds can change for the better.

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