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Seventy-five years ago today, as Hitler's troops advanced in Europe and the Great Depression took its toll on the United States, one of the most important musical events of the 20th century took place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There were just two performers, a singer and a pianist. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says on April 9, 1939, they made musical and social history.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The singer was 42 years old, respected in Europe and the U.S., but had never faced such an enormous audience, 75,000 people. She was terrified. Later, she wrote: I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now. So at 5:00 p.m. in the April dusk, Marian Anderson stepped onto a stage built over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing) My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee...

STAMBERG: These first notes show no sign of nerves and the choice of music, that opening song, is remarkable, given the circumstances. The NBC Blue Network announcer explained the unusual venue this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Marian Anderson is singing this public concert at the Lincoln Memorial because she was unable to get an auditorium to accommodate the tremendous audience that wished to hear her.

STAMBERG: Not exactly. In fact, they had tried to book Constitution Hall for the concert. A large audience was expected and that was the biggest auditorium in town. But the Daughters of the American Revolution owned Constitution Hall and Anderson biographer Allan Keiler says that was a problem.

ALLAN KEILER: They refused to allow her use of the hall because she was black and there was a white artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR.

STAMBERG: Like the nation's capital, Constitution Hall was segregated then. Black audiences could sit in a small section of the balcony, and did when a few black performers appeared in earlier years. But after one such singer refused to perform in a segregated auditorium, the DAR ruled that only whites could appear on their stage.

And so that Easter Sunday of 1939, contralto Marian Anderson faced an immense desegregated crowd outdoors on The Mall. She began with a deeply patriotic song. When she got to the third line of that well-known tune, Ms. Anderson made a change.

KEILER: The lyric was of thee I sing, but she chose to sing of thee we sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ANDERSON: (Singing) Of thee we sing.

STAMBERG: A quiet, humble person, Marian Anderson often used we when speaking about herself. Years after the concert, she explained why.

ANDERSON: We cannot live alone. And the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me has been brought about by many people whom we will never know.

STAMBERG: But her change of lyric from I to we can be heard as an embrace, implying community and group responsibility. Never a civil rights activist, Anderson believed prejudice would disappear if she simply performed and behaved with dignity. But dignity came at a price throughout her 25-minute Lincoln Memorial concert. Biographer Keiler says she appeared frightened before every song, yet the perfect notes kept coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ANDERSON: (Singing)

KEILER: I think it was because she was able to close her eyes and shut out what she saw in front of her, and simply the music took over.

STAMBERG: She could shut out the crowd, shut out the three months of brouhaha and controversy that led up to up to this day during which the concert and contention were all over the newspapers. Eyes closed, enveloped in song, she soared above it all to erase discord with her art. On that stage, before a bank of microphones, the Lincoln statue looming behind her, iconic photographs reveal Anderson as a regal figure that cloudy, blustery day.

Although the sun did break out as she began to sing, she wrapped her fur coat around her against the April wind. That mink coat is preserved at the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington. Museum assistant Ally Martin (ph) pulls out a large archival box from cold storage. Oh, look, it's got a beautiful lining embroidered with gold threads and a lovely sort of paisley pattern.

ALLY MARTIN: Marian Anderson's initials are embroidered on the inside.

STAMBERG: Museum historian Gail Lowe says whether wrapped in that coat or gowned for a concert hall, Marian Anderson touched everyone who heard her.

GAIL LOWE: Her voice was a very rich contralto and so those kinds of low notes get into one and can resonate and sort of match one's heartbeat.

STAMBERG: A voice that comes around once in a hundred years, Conductor Arturo Toscanini said. Many hands helped bring that voice to the Lincoln Memorial 75 years ago today. Howard University, the NAACP and the Roosevelt administration made it happen. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR when they turned Anderson away, but took no further public action. President Franklin Roosevelt had his interior secretary, Harold Ickes, handle logistics.

In the shadow of the Great Emancipator, Ickes introduced Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROLD ICKES: In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free.

STAMBERG: Genius, like justice, is blind, Ickes went on, and genius had touched Marian Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

STAMBERG: The Lincoln Memorial concert made Marian Anderson an international celebrity. It overshadowed the rest of her long life as a performer. She was 96 when she died in 1993. Eventually she did sing at Constitution Hall. The DAR had apologized and changed its rules. Marian Anderson rarely spoke of that historic April day, and biographer Allan Keiler says when she did, there was no rancor.

KEILER: You never heard in her voice a single tone of meanness, bitterness, blame; it was simply lacking.

STAMBERG: There is something saintly in that, you know.

KEILER: There is something saintly in that, something deeply human and good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVE MARIA")

ANDERSON: (Singing) Ave Maria.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

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