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Barack Obama will be sworn in as America's first African American president next year. But 2009 also marks the 70th anniversary of another event where race, politics and music collided: the 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert featuring African American singer Marian Anderson. A mural in the Department of the Interior in Washington commemorates the event. Kyle Gassiott visited the mural and has this look at Anderson's legacy.

 

There are two versions of the mural in the Department of the Interior. The original and a large reproduction in the office of Melba Vaughan, the departmentís complaint manager for civil rights. Three months ago, when Vaughan was looking for a piece of art from the department's collection to hang on her wall, she saw the mural, heard the story behind it and she knew this was the one.

"Iím sure that anyone who looks at this will be amazed because itís an excellent piece of work and Iím so glad and honored to have sitting it in this office until I leave," Vaughan says.

In the foreground of the mural men, women, and children, both black and white, gather to listen to singer Marian Anderson who is a tiny figure on the steps of the memorial. According to the department's curator, David McKinney, the mural's artist Mitchell Jamieson left an opening in the crowd almost inviting the viewer to step in and listen.

"I think he wanted you to be part of the audience. And I think he wanted you to feel what the people in the audience were feeling. Again that great deal of pride that here was an African American woman someone that shared the same struggle as most of the people right in the foreground of this mural did," McKinney says.

In 1939, Marian Anderson was already a star on the concert stage with a voice that renowned Conductor Arturo Toscanini said comes once in a hundred years. That year, after being invited to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, she was told the audience would not be integrated. Anderson refused to perform and in response, Walter White, president of the NAACP arranged to have her sing Easter morning on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd that gathered that day numbered 75 thousand.

Musicologist Alan Keiler has written an account of Marian Anderson's life. According to him the concert and the attention it received was at times overwhelming for the singer. She wasn't always comfortable being a civil rights activist and she wished to leave the entire account of the concert out of her autobiography.

"It was sort of thrust upon her and she took on that challenge with great dignity and courage, but she worked her entire life to sing well and she was afraid that people would only know the Lincoln Memorial Concert and not everything else about her as an artist," Keiler says.

But even though Anderson avoided what she termed "hand to hand" combat in the battle against racism, she acknowledged the power of her voice in a 1979 interview with NPR.

"To have things about you and the things that youíre interested in available to touch the lives of other people, to know that you have this instrument over which your voice can go and know that thereís something being said from which, if only a dozen people grasp your meaning, you have done a very great service," Anderson said.

Later in her career, Marian Anderson surpassed another racial barrier. In 1955 the Metropolitan Opera of New York asked Anderson to sing in their upcoming performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. After some initial hesitation--at the time she was 60 years old and had never performed in an opera--Anderson agreed to be the first black singer ever to perform at the Met. That January the curtain rose on Anderson as the sorceress Ulrica, in her only operatic role.

According to Alan Keiler, at the sight of Anderson on stage, the audience stood and applauded before she even sang a note.

"I mean can you imagine a black singer singing a major role at the Metropolitan Opera and not just any black singer, it was Marian Anderson which meant not only her voice and her artistry but 20 or 30 years of history was sitting on that stage," Keiler says.

Since that January many African American singers have performed at the Met, including Leontyne Price, Simon Estes and soprano Denyce Graves who met the singer when she won the Marian Anderson award in 1992. Graves says Anderson communicated not only through her voice but her spirit as well and her career quietly and firmly paved the way for others.

"We are standing on her shoulders we owe her a great debt, for what she paid. So Iím extremely honored and pay homage to this tremendous being and what she did and what she opened," Graves says.

"America" as well as the other songs Marian Anderson sang in 1939 will be heard once again when Denyce Graves performs a 60th anniversary re-enactment concert this spring on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

For Intern Edition, I'm Kyle Gassiott.

 

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008