When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt learned of this affront, not only did she resign her membership from the DAR, but she was so outraged she worked in tandem with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to convince FDR to invite Marian Anderson to perform on the Mall at the Lincoln Memorial. To date, the crowd was the largest ever assembled at the Memorial, and the live broadcast of her performance reached an enraptured listening audience of millions.
So strongly were the First Lady’s sentiments about racial equality, that in July 1939 she presented the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP to Marian Anderson for her lessons of dignity and strength in representing a people long oppressed in their own land.
With Lincoln gazing on in the background, Sec. Ickes, who had said of Ms. Anderson that "Genius, like justice, is blind.... Genius draws no color line," introduced her to the 75,000 - an audience including senators, Cabinet members and Supreme Court Justices - by simply observing: "In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free."
Ms. Anderson’s concert selections were a mixture of classical pieces and African-American Spirituals. She punctuated the sentiment of solidarity in that we are a nation of many, but share common goals during her rendition of "My Country, ‘Tis of Thee" when she changed the lyrics from "Of thee I sing" to "Of thee we sing."
Her concert’s impact was immediate with one newsreel emblazoned across its title "Nation’s Capital Gets A Lesson in Tolerance!"
One person of note who was particularly moved by Ms. Anderson’s concert was ten year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. It was five years later, entered in a speaking contest on the topic of "The Negro and the Constitution," King said of her performance:
"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."
It is little wonder that in 1963 during the March on Washington when Dr. King had concluded his brief comments that when legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him, "Tell them about your dream, Martin. Tell them about your dream!" he practically began his improvised peroration with the first line from "My Country, ‘Tis of Thee."
It’s hard to not to imagine that Pres. Obama felt a kindred spirit with Marian Anderson and Dr. King when he asked Aretha Franklin to sing that same song to a crowd of two million during his Inauguration.
Marian Anderson’s path to fame and fortune (in 1938 she earned nearly a quarter of a million dollars, which, adjusted for inflation, comes to $3.7 million) seemingly was enabled more by Europeans than her own fellow Americans.
Born in a poor section of Philadelphia in 1897, it was through the efforts of people like Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, then the director of the National Conservatory, in New York, who had said that African-American spirituals would play a major role in American music, and that African-Americans were admitted to the school free of charge.
She was wildly embraced and lauded on her frequent European tours, gaining much wider acceptance and praise there than in America. It was renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini who said she was blessed with a voice that one can only hope to hear once a century. And yet here in America she suffered as a "singer of color" the same overt second-class citizenship felt by all African-Americans.
Who could gainsay her the joy and dignity she surely felt after being denied a room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey while on a concert tour she instead, through a gracious invitation, spent the night at Albert Einstein’s home.
Today, as part of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, the DAR and others are paying tribute to Marian Anderson. The commemorative concert at the Lincoln Memorial featured mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves - wearing the same gown as Marian Anderson, Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Chicago Children's Choir. Former Sec. of State Colin Powell will recite excerpts from Lincoln's second inaugural address during the concert, after which about 200 people will be sworn as new U.S. citizens.
It must be noted that the DAR recognized the affront of their bigotry in 1939, and graciously issued this statement as part of today’s celebration:
The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regrets that Marian Anderson was not given the opportunity to perform her 1939 Easter concert in Constitution Hall because of her race. Today, however, we join with all Americans in paying tribute to her memory and commemorating such a pivotal event in the struggle for racial equality. Our organization truly wishes that history could be re-written, but knowing that it cannot, we are proud to note that DAR has learned from the past.
And it should also be noted that the DAR shortly after recognizing their error, welcomed Ms. Anderson to Constitution Hall on a number of occasions including a benefit concert for war relief in 1943, as well as hosting the dedication ceremony in 2005 for issuing the Marian Anderson commemorative stamp. Ms. Anderson also received that DAR Centennial Medallion in 1992, recognizing her outstanding service to a grateful nation.
Marian Anderson died in 1993, at the age of ninety-six. For most of us, her iconic concert on the steps of Lincoln Memorial will forever mark a turning point in American history by her being blessed with "The Voice of the Century."