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‘She sang with her eyes closed’: The concert at the Lincoln Memorial that changed America

Marian Anderson performs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter in 1939. (AP)

As she stepped toward the bouquet of microphones, she closed her eyes — as if to echo the words of the man who had just introduced her by saying, “Genius, like justice, is blind.”

She breathed in and began: “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty …”

The next line she changed; instead of “Of thee I sing,” she sang, “To thee we sing.” Perhaps it was a nod to the 75,000 people standing outside on a brisk Easter evening to watch her. Or the millions more listening at home.

Eighty years ago Tuesday, contralto singer Marian Anderson performed on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial, after being refused the largest indoor stage in Washington because she was black. It was a remarkable moment in civil rights and U.S. history.

Anderson, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, had an incredible voice that was first noticed in her Baptist church choir. Neighbors took a collection to help pay for voice lessons. In her late teens or early 20s — her birth date is unclear — she won a prestigious award and moved to Europe, where opportunities were better for black Americans to train and perform.

She spent nearly 10 years there, performing for sold-out crowds. Kings and queens lauded her. Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini said a voice like hers was heard “once in a hundred years.”

In 1935, Anderson returned to the United States as one of the most revered people on the planet. She performed at the White House for first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Just up the road, historically black Howard University started a tradition of hosting her for an annual concert.

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Each year, the Howard concert got bigger and needed ever-bigger venues. By 1939, organizers asked to rent the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall — the largest auditorium in the District at the time. The hall was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, an influential women’s group for direct descendants of Revolutionary War participants. At the time, the group was entirely white.

The DAR refused to host Anderson. According to historian Allida M. Black in Presidential Studies Quarterly, the auditorium manager told the organizers it was because Anderson was black. He told the news media it was because the auditorium was already booked.

Next, the organizers asked for permission to use a local white high school’s auditorium. They were turned down there, too.

Picketers protested outside the school board offices. Local clergy sent letters and wrote op-eds. Members of Congress called for an investigation.

“Can you believe it?” Lucy Monroe, a white opera singer, exclaimed to The Washington Post that February. “She’s the greatest singer in the world and they won’t let her sing in the nation’s capital!”

“She’ll sing here,” said Lulu V. Childers, one of the organizers, “even if we have to build a tent for her.”

Then, on Feb. 26, came the most notable protest of all. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the DAR, resigned from the group. In a telegram to the leader, she said, “I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign. … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

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Two weeks later, The Post reported the DAR’s joking response. At an annual conference at the Mayflower Hotel, members performed a skit based on a question-and-answer column with a character called “Auntie Hat.” “What hat shall I wear at the coming concert of Marian Anderson in Constitution Hall?” a performer asked. Auntie Hat answered, “By the time the concert comes off, no telling what kind of hats will be in fashion.”

As news of Roosevelt’s resignation reverberated, the first lady was working behind the scenes, too. Anderson’s manager had suggested she be allowed to perform at the Lincoln Memorial instead, and Roosevelt, with NAACP officials, brought this idea to Harold Ickes. As secretary of the interior, Ickes was the man who could make a concert on federal land happen. Ickes got permission from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and held a news conference announcing the move the same day.

When Anderson arrived in Washington the next week, she stayed at a private residence; no hotel in the city would take her.

Easter Sunday was windy and cloudy, but as Anderson walked down the steps of the monument, The Post reported, “the sun came through to bathe the reflecting pool and bring out the radiance of the Easter finery.”

First she sang “America.” Then came two classical pieces — an Italian aria and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”

“She sang with her eyes closed, effortlessly and without gestures, as enchantment settled on the notables up front and on the multitude out beyond,” The Post reported.

After a brief intermission, Anderson returned to the microphones to sing a selection of black spirituals — “Gospel Train,” “Trampin’” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” Finally, she returned for an encore, singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

(The original radio broadcast below includes all but the last two songs.)

Washington singer and voice teacher Todd Duncan, who was in the audience, later described it this way: “The sight of Abraham Lincoln with this black woman standing in a beautiful fur coat in front of a big Steinway piano singing, ‘My Country 'tis of Thee,’ is a thing you don’t see or hear or feel every day. I know my soul has it and it will never, never leave.”

Senators, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members were in attendance. The first lady told newspapers she would “make every effort” to go but in the end, she wasn’t there, citing preparations for an upcoming book tour and the birth of a grandchild.

Anderson was asked about this moment for the rest of her life; but whenever she was, she was brief, saying, “It was unfortunate” or “You lose a lot of time hating people.” She was not an outspoken activist like a Harry Belafonte or a Nina Simone. And she sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR less than four years later — barely enough time for hat styles to change.

Still, her flawless performance and the fight to make it happen set the stage for civil rights battles over segregation in schools and other public accommodations in the years to come. And it hinted at the power music would play in that movement.

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