American contralto Marian Anderson, widely considered to be the best voice of her time, was immensely popular across Europe and parts of the U.S. But when she tried to book a concert in Washington D.C. in 1939, she was turned away. Washington’s Constitution Hall was the only venue large enough to hold her concert, but the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform there, telling her there were no dates available. It quickly became apparent that they were still booking the hall for white performers, creating a country-wide controversy. After the singer was turned away, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was on the board of the D.A.R., learned the story and was outraged, especially since Anderson had performed at the White House a few months before.
Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, organized an Easter Sunday event at the Lincoln Memorial. The entire concert lasted 25 minutes, and it was attended by an enthusiastic integrated crowd of 80,000 people and heard by millions on the radio. Anderson opened the concert with My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, and the recording survived. Today seemed like the right day to share it.
“The light of her beautiful voice overcame the darkness of discrimination and intolerance to inspire an audience much larger than the hall where she was prevented from singing.”– Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior (2013-2017)
Although the ever-gracious Anderson and the D.A.R. both claimed the incident was a misunderstanding, the singer’s outdoor concert became a symbol for Civil Rights activism nation-wide.
Wishing everyone a peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. Day.