As the capital of the United States and home of the federal government, Washington, DC and all that happens there has a particular symbolic value. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, activists have used the city’s monuments and public spaces as a backdrop to highlight the importance of their cause. Possibly no location has become as loaded with symbolism as the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1939 world famous black opera singer Marian Anderson planned to perform in Washington, DC as part of her American tour. Anderson was described as having an “imposing majesty” and possessed a “voice that even in speech still enthralled her listeners.”1Organizers of the event, including faculty from the music department at the historically black Howard University, knew that the only theater in the city large enough to hold the expected audience would be Constitution Hall.
Three years earlier, Anderson was the first black artist to perform at the White House when she sang at the request of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. But in 1939 Washington, DC was simultaneously segregated and integrated, both by law and by custom. The laws in Washington that mandated segregation in public schools and recreation facilities did not apply to public libraries or public transportation.2And even though blacks were customarily expected to sit in separate sections in white theaters, this custom was often abandoned and seating was mixed.3However, this was never the case in Constitution Hall, which was, and still is, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)–a genealogical women’s organization whose members can trace their ancestors back to the patriots of the American Revolution.4Whereas many theaters had segregated seating for blacks and whites, the DAR adopted an uncommonly rigid policy that prevented black artists from performing at Constitution Hall. When the organizers of Marian Anderson’s concert approached DAR president Mrs. Henry M. Robert, Jr. directly, she bluntly stated that no Negro artist would be permitted to appear [there].5
Though Anderson herself rarely spoke out about civil rights, her concert organizers and other civil rights leaders, including Howard University Treasurer V. D. Johnston and NAACP chairman Walter White, were vocal in their outrage on her behalf. In response, White, a personal friend of Mrs. Roosevelt, who was herself a DAR member, encouraged her to take a stand. Roosevelt considered how to respond.
Civil rights issues had become increasingly important to Mrs. Roosevelt. Just a few years before, she had attended a civil rights meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. When police insisted on separating blacks and whites, Roosevelt, who had been sitting on the black side of the aisle, moved her chair to the middle of the room in a symbolic act of protest. At the same time, Roosevelt was fully aware that as the first lady any action she took would soon become national news. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had to handle civil rights issues delicately during his presidency. Many of Congress’s key committees were run by die-hard segregationists who resisted what they viewed as federal interference in their way of life. While Mrs. Roosevelt debated her response, the story of the DAR’s refusal to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall had begun to receive attention in the press. After strategizing with NAACP officials, black clergy, and the faculty and staff of Howard University, and United States Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR. In her letter of resignation, Roosevelt explained her actions:
I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate. And I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed. 6
The next day, in her syndicated daily newspaper column, “My Day,” Roosevelt explained that she usually believed in working within organizations to change their policies, even if it required a painfully long process. However, in this case, she felt that the DAR had left her no choice: “They have taken an action that was widely talked of in the press. To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning ....”7The same day that this column appeared, Anderson stated:
I am not surprised at Mrs. Roosevelt’s actions . . . because she seems to me to be one who really comprehends the true meaning of democracy. I am shocked beyond words to be barred from the capital of my own country after having appeared almost in every other capital in the world.8
Roosevelt’s resignation and subsequent column made the DAR’s racist actions a national sensation. While she was not the first to resign, her bold stand drew widespread attention to the DAR’s segregationist policy, and newspapers around the country picked up the story. One New York Times editorial in particular captured the public’s outrage:
...Those who love music and are unable to perceive any relationship between music on the one hand and political, economic or social issues on the other will regret, as Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt does, that Washington may be deprived of the pleasure of hearing this artist.
If Miss Anderson’s inability to find a suitable hall in the national capital for her April concert is due to social or racial snobbery, all that can be said is that such an attitude is inconsistent with the best American traditions, including those which were born in the fires of the American Revolution. It is hard to believe that any patriotic organization in this country would approve of discrimination against so gifted an artist and so fine a person as Miss Anderson. In fact, no organization could do so and still merit the adjective patriotic.
We hope there has been some mistake. If there has not been, it is not Miss Anderson who has suffered most. She has, as before, the esteem and admiration of all those who love a golden voice and cherish American ideals.9
After Roosevelt’s resignation, The New York Times published the results of a national survey about her actions:
The vote for the country at large is:
Approve of Mrs. Roosevelt’s action in resigning.............67%
Southerners dissented by an average vote of 57 per cent, but even some of the dissenters declared they had no objection to Marian Anderson’s singing as a paid performer. It was Mrs. Roosevelt’s “making a fuss about it” that they disliked.
A majority of Democrats in Mrs. Roosevelt’s own party approve of what she did, however, and it is interesting to note that most Republicans do likewise:
Approve–Democrats, 68 per cent; Republicans, 63 per cent.
Disapprove–Democrats, 32 per cent; Republicans, 37 per cent.10
Mrs. Roosevelt and others were still not satisfied. Despite the public outcry against the DAR’s policy prohibiting black artists from appearing at Constitution Hall, Anderson, who had given concerts all over the world, still had no place to perform in the capital of her own country. White, Mrs. Roosevelt, Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok, and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes came up with a bold plan that met with President Roosevelt’s wholehearted approval. They arranged for Anderson to perform as planned in Washington, DC on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Defying the culture of segregation, they organized an open air concert–open to all people–on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As reported in a New York Times article,
[A]n enthusiastic crowd estimated at 75,000, including many government officials, stood at the foot of Lincoln Memorial today and heard Marian Anderson, Negro contralto, give a concert and tendered her an unusual ovation. Permission to sing in Constitution Hall had been refused Miss Anderson by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The audience, about half composed of Negroes, was gathered in a semi-circle at the foot of the great marble monument to the man who emancipated the Negroes. It stretched half-way around the long reflecting pool. Miss Anderson was applauded heartily after each of her numbers and was forced to give an encore.
When the concert was finished the crowd, in attempting to congratulate Miss Anderson, threatened to mob her and police had to rush her back inside the Memorial where the heroic statue of Lincoln towers.. . .
Secretary Ickes, who granted Miss Anderson permission to sing at this site, sat on her right on the monument’s plaza, just above the specially arranged platform from which Miss Anderson sang into six microphones that carried the sound of her voice for blocks and over radio channels to millions throughout the country. . . .
Miss Anderson wore a tan fur coat with a bright orange and yellow scarf about her throat. She was bareheaded. Her mother was present.
In introducing Miss Anderson, Mr. Ickes referred to the Washington Monument at one end of the reflecting pool and to the Lincoln Memorial and in an implied rebuke to the D.A.R. remarked that “in our own time too many pay mere lip service to these twin planets in our democratic heaven.”
“In this great auditorium under the sky all of us are free,” the Secretary asserted. “When God gave us this wonderful outdoors and the sun, the moon and the stars, He made no distinction of race, or creed, or color.”
In a few brief remarks at the end of her concert Miss Anderson said: “I am so overwhelmed, I just can’t talk. I can’t tell you what you have done for me today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart again and again.”11
The massive crowd extended from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument while all across the country radios turned to a national broadcast of the performance.12 Reflecting on the concert in her autobiography, Anderson wrote, “All I knew then was the overwhelming impact of that vast multitude. . . . I had a feeling that a great wave of good will poured out from these people.”13
Three months after the concert on July 2, 1939 in Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederacy, Eleanor Roosevelt presented Marian Anderson with the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor. The concert continues to echo through the country’s history. Two decades later, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from those very steps, concluding his sermon with the first verse of “America” (“My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) – the same song Marian Anderson used to open her program in 1939.14 And nearly half a century later, a record two million people crowded in front of the Lincoln Memorial to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States. At the inauguration, Aretha Franklin sang “America,” bringing to mind Marian Anderson’s historic concert 70 years earlier. Though Mrs. Roosevelt did not attend the concert, her response was the driving force behind both Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and the subsequently strengthened association of the Lincoln Memorial with the civil rights movement.
- 1 : Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 525.
- 2 : Marya Annette McQuirter, “African Americans in Washington, DC: 1800– 1975,” Washington: Cultural Tourism DC (2003).
- 3 : Allan Keiler, Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 188–89; 191.
- 4 : “Who We Are,” Daughters of the American Revolution National Society website, accessed May 18, 2009.
- 5 : Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 525.
- 6 : “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Letter of Resignation,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum website, accessed March 4, 2009.
- 7 : Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day,” February 27, 1939.
- 8 : “Mrs. Roosevelt Indicates She Has Resigned From D.A.R. Over Refusal of Hall to Negro,” The New York Times, February 27, 1939.
- 9 : “Marian Anderson,” The New York Times, March 1, 1939; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 17.
- 10 : “Mrs. Roosevelt Approved,” The New York Times; March 19, 1939; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 58.
- 11 : “Throng Honors Marian Anderson In Concert at Lincoln Memorial” The New York Times. April 10, 1939; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times, 15. The Washington Post, April 10, 1939.
- 12 : Anderson, Marian, My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 191.
- 13 : Alex Ross, “Voice of the Century: Celebrating Marian Anderson,” The New Yorker, April 13, 2009, 78, 79.
- 14 : Lash, Eleanor and Franklin, 527. Other documents related to this event can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration’s website.