The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

(The following is a guest post by Audrey Fischer, editor of the Library of Congress Magazine.)

As the Library of Congress prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a new exhibition (opening June 19), it’s worth remembering a moment in history when the specter of segregation still loomed large.

Washington's prominent figures listen to Marian Anderson's singing. April 9, 1939. Prints and Photographs Division.

Washington’s prominent figures listen to Marian Anderson’s singing. April 9, 1939. Prints and Photographs Division.

On April 9, 1939, renowned contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) performed an Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The event, which was broadcast nationally by radio and drew an integrated audience of more than 75,000, almost didn’t take place.

Several months earlier, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) barred the African- American singer from performing her Howard University-sponsored spring concert at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Anderson, who had begun singing in church at the age of six, had already toured Europe to rave reviews, performed with the New York Philharmonic and had sung at Carnegie Hall.  (She would, in 1955, become the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House). Nonetheless, the DAR would not budge on its “whites only” clause governing use of the concert hall.

Marian Anderson singing at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., April 9 before 75,000 persons. Prints and Photographs Division.

Marian Anderson singing at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., April 9 before 75,000 persons. Prints and Photographs Division.

Reaction was swift. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) rallied support for the singer and worked to secure another venue. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership in protest. She worked with NAACP Secretary Walter White and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange the outdoor concert. The performance, which coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, became a symbol of the struggle for racial equality. Anderson’s repertoire began with the patriotic “My Country , Tis of Thee” and included three Negro spirituals. She closed with “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

Housed in the Library of Congress, the NAACP Records include a letter from Walter White to Mrs. Roosevelt, dated April 12, 1939, thanking her for her role in making the Anderson concert possible. He also expresses his delight that the First Lady agreed to present Anderson with the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal at the organization’s annual convention in July. The letter was on display in the Library’s 2009 exhibition commemorating the NAACP’s centennial.

In 1943, a mural by Mitchell Jamieson commemorating the 1939 concert was presented by Interior Secretary Ickes at an event honoring Anderson. That year, Anderson made her first appearance in Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR. Her concert benefited United China Relief.

Marian Anderson, (lower left), standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with back to camera, facing the Washington Monument and a crowd of thousands. 1939. Prints and Photographs Division.

Marian Anderson, (lower left), standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with back to camera, facing the Washington Monument and a crowd of thousands. 1939. Prints and Photographs Division.

Anderson, who performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, returned to the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, to perform at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – another event in the long struggle for civil rights. That same year she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Kennedy.

In 2001, the Librarian of Congress selected footage of Anderson’s 1939 concert for inclusion in its National Film Registry, and in 2008, the radio broadcast of the event was included in the National Recording Registry.

A concert marking the 75th anniversary of Anderson’s 1939 concert will be held April 12, 2014, at DAR Constitution Hall, hosted by Grammy-award-winning opera singer Jessye Norman.

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