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.

You’re Supposed to Steep Tea in Boiling Water

On Dec. 16, 1773, a group of Bostonians dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded ships docked in Boston Harbor and dumped some 340 chests of tea into the water. Today marks the 240th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. “A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their […]

A Temperate Nation

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition. On Dec. 5, 1933, the United States repealed the nationwide prohibition on alcoholic beverages, by ratifying the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And, while the masses may have raised their glasses, there were certainly those among them not happy with the decision. Temperance activists […]

The Sound of Drums

On Friday, November 22, 1963, the students in Mrs. Maxwell’s third-grade class at Sabin Elementary School in southwest Denver got a singular history lesson: the news came in that President John F. Kennedy had been murdered. Janet Maxwell, a popular young instructor who taught 25 kids reading, math, science and history by turns, was trying […]

Inquiring Minds: Commemorating the Gettysburg Address with Author Jonathan Hennessey

A 10-year veteran of the film and television production industry, Jonathan Hennessey is a Los Angeles-based writer. Hennessey is the author of “The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation,” on which he collaborated with illustrator Aaron McConnell. In their newest work, “The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation,” the duo commemorate the 150th anniversary of this […]

Recite the Gettysburg Address

On Nov. 19, 1862 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery at the Civil War battlefield. One of the most famous speeches in American history, the speech is recognized as a literary masterpiece. In three short paragraphs—some 270 words—Lincoln proclaimed the principles upon which the nation was founded, honored […]

A Pirate’s Life For Me

Today, you best get out your peg leg, eye patch and practice your “arrrr’s” … it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day! What started as a joke among a handful of friends in 1995 has become a widely recognized fun-for-the-sake-of-fun celebration, thanks in large part to a column written by Dave Barry in 2002. A […]

Happy Constitution Day!

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Today we celebrate […]

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Why Sept. 15?

(The following is a guest post by Barbara A. Tenenbaum, specialist in Mexican culture in the Library of Congress Hispanic Division.)       It seems a bit strange that in contrast to all the other “heritage” celebrations and recognitions, the one for Hispanic Americans starts in the middle of the month – September 15 […]