On April 9, 1939, singer Marian Anderson sang before 75,000 fans in Washington, D.C. in a concert that predated rallies that would shape the civil rights movement decades later.
Howard University had worked with Hurok to ask the Daughters of the American Revolution in January 1939 to use their 4,000-seat Constitution Hall for an Easter event with Anderson.
In March 1939, the District of Columbia’s Board of Education briefly gave permission for Anderson to use the Central High School auditorium for her recital, but with string attached. The offer was withdrawn within two weeks.
The moves were a challenge to the segregation polices in the nation’s capital. In 1930, singer Paul Robeson had been refused permission to perform at Constitution Hall, and blacks who attended events there had to sit at the back of the auditorium.
The Philadelphia-born Anderson had become an internationally known star in the prior decade, performing extensively in Europe and the United States.
Anderson was active in local church groups as a child. Her father died when she was 12, after he was hurt working at the city’s Reading Terminal Market. Her grandfather had been a slave.
When she toured Europe, Anderson had equal use of all public facilities, which wasn’t true when she came home.
An AP story from March 4, 1939, quoted the Education Board statement that the decision was “in no way opening the door for the beginning of a new policy.” Author Allan Keiler, in his biography Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey, said the offer was pulled on March 17, apparently over concerns about how a potential performance by Anderson would affect segregation in Washington’s public school system.
By that point, the story involving Anderson’s concert had become a national one. A group called the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) formed to put pressure on the DAR and the Board of Education.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for Anderson in a nationally syndicated newspaper column she wrote. In late February 1939, Roosevelt publicly resigned from the DAR and supported the MACC.
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Just days before the Board of Education withdrew its offer, the NAACP approved the relocation of the concert to the Lincoln Memorial. On March 21, the news got out that the concert could be held at the Lincoln Memorial.
With the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes confirmed the event would be on Easter Sunday. (Ickes also had been the past president of the Chicago NAACP.)
The First Lady decided not to attend the event, to avoid a distraction, but she lobbied to make sure it was broadcast on national radio and was involved in other planning.
The event came together in little more than a week. The NAACP worked to get people there within traveling distance to the Lincoln Memorial. The Interior Department expected a large crowd, and the official attendance figure for the 30-minute concert of 75,000 people was about what they planned for.
Keiler says that Anderson and her family took a train from Philadelphia to Washington early Sunday afternoon. They were to stay with former Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot and his wife, since it wasn’t known which hotel, if any, in Washington would board Anderson and her mother.
The concert started around 5 p.m. Secretary Ickes spoke briefly. Members of the Supreme Court, the Cabinet and Congress sat up front. The crowd stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Memorial, in a scene that would become more familiar in later years.
Anderson started by singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which was captured by newsreel cameras with the singer standing in front of eight microphones with the Lincoln Memorial behind her.
The radio audience on the NBC Blue network was large. And author Raymond Arsenault, whose book The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial and the Concert details the concert scene, says organizers knew the important role radio would play in sending a message beyond Washington.
The radio announcer introduced Anderson by saying, “It is fitting and symbolic that she should be singing on Easter Sunday on the steps of the memorial to the Great Emancipator, who stuck the shackles of slavery from her people 76 years ago.”
The newsreel cameras didn’t film the entire event, but the opening images of Anderson performing in front of the Lincoln Memorial—in front of a biracial audience—was seen by millions.
Among the people influenced by the concert was 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. Five years later, King won a speaking contest at his Atlanta high school, using the topic “The Negro and the Constitution,” and mentioning the event.
As a high school junior, King said: “She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America.”
“Recently she was again signally honored by being given the Bok reward as the most distinguished resident of Philadelphia. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, even after it has declared her to be its best citizen.”
But by January 1943, Anderson did sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, and she started her 1964 American farewell tour there. The DAR has hosted several Anderson tributes in the years after the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, and Anderson said well before her death in 1993 that she forgave the group.
And there’s some evidence that a spat between the man who booked concerts at Constitution Hall and another black singer, Roland Hayes, in 1932 may have played a part in the incident.
In 1963, King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial where he gave his “I Have A Dream” speech and echoed Anderson’s performance.
“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring,’” King said.
Among the singers who performed at the event was Marian Anderson.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.