Marian Anderson's Big Moment: A Look Back After being barred from performing at Constitution Hall in 1939 because she was black, opera singer Marian Anderson gave a performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Author Raymond Arsenault's new book, The Sound of Freedom, reflects on the cultural significance of Anderson's performance that Easter.
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Marian Anderson's Big Moment: A Look Back

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Marian Anderson's Big Moment: A Look Back

Marian Anderson's Big Moment: A Look Back

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On Easter Sunday 70 years ago, a famous concert took place in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 people, at least, were there. And the concert was heard across the country because it was broadcast on NBC Radio.

Unidentified Man: Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman. We are speaking to you from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation's capitol, from which point, the National Broadcasting Company brings you a song recitaled by the gifted Marian Anderson, considered by music critics throughout the world as possessing a most outstanding contralto voice. 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 wish to hear her.

WERTHEIMER: That's not exactly what happened. Marian Anderson had tried to book Constitution Hall for her Washington concert, but she was turned down by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the hall, because Marian Anderson was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt interceded and arranged for another venue, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson was introduced by the president's close friend, the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. And clutching her fur coat around her on a chilly April afternoon, she began the concert.

(Soundbite of song, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee")

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

WERTHEIMER: In a new book about that concert and the life of Marian Anderson, Raymond Arsenault argues that standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that Easter Sunday, Marian Anderson set in motion events that would change the country. His book is called "The Sound of Freedom." Mr. Arsenault, welcome to the program.

Dr. RAYMOND ARSENAULT (Author, "The Sound of Freedom"): My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: You've given your book a very long subtitle which ends, "The Concert that Awakened America." Marian Anderson was not a civil rights activist in 1939. I mean, she was certainly incredibly celebrated a big star. But my impression is that at the time she sang at the Memorial, she didn't herself see this as a step in the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. ARSENAULT: That's exactly right. She was very reluctant to sing. This was only the second time she'd ever sung outside. For her it was all about the music. She was a perfectionist. And she almost backed out the night before. And it was really against her nature to be an activist, but she knew she had to accept this responsibility, and she did it very faithfully and with a great grace and dignity for the rest of her life.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that came before or after the performance? I know that civil rights leaders had been trying to recruit her to be some kind of a face for the movement even before this happened.

Dr. ARSENAULT: She was a personal friend of Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP. And she had had involvement with the NAACP, but she was so busy and she really had no time and, of course, her promoters didn't want her to be actively involved in politics. And she saw herself as more of a personal vanguard. She thought if she could act with dignity that the prejudice would melt away.

WERTHEIMER: The insult to Marian Anderson on account of race was more significant because of the sort of person she was.

Dr. ARSENAULT: I think that's exactly right. For example, Paul Robeson could not have done it. As great a figure as he was, he had a - the image of being assertive, she did not. She was disarming. People couldn't imagine really that she was trying to interject herself into a controversy.

WERTHEIMER: The Daughters of the American Revolution, the people that sort of started this rolling, they were not especially repentant, at least not right away. It was several years before black performers were permitted to perform there and the hall itself was segregated.

Dr. ARSENAULT: Yes. It was a complicated story, actually. Constitutional Hall opened in 1929 and there were black performers in the early '30s, but to their dismay, black performers attracted black patrons, too many, in the opinion of many of their elite white patrons, who liked to go to Constitutional Hall. And so they instituted a white artist only policy in 1932, and that's what Marian Anderson ran up against.

I think this was such an unprecedented situation for the DAR. They were the leading patriotic organization in the United States. They found themselves on the wrong side of history, but they had every reason to believe that they were on the right side. And they were looking back to an age of privilege and exclusion. And no one had ever started a civil right struggle over a concert venue before.

And, of course, they didn't bank upon the fact that their most famous member, Eleanor Roosevelt, would resign and create this national controversy. And, of course, they dug in their heels. They felt they were being singled out, that it was a segregated city. And - but they - I think they didn't figure on the fact that the times were changing and there was a nascent Civil Rights Movement and it was a glimpse of what America could be in the future.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that the concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that whole event, do you think that radicalized Marian Anderson in some sense?

Dr. ARSENAULT: I'm not sure radicalized is the right term, but it emboldened her certainly. It empowered her. She rarely mentioned it later in her life. She never wanted to rub it in to the - with the DAR. And when she held her farewell tour in 1964, the first concert was held in Constitution Hall. But even then there was a struggle over the arrangements for RCA recording the concert. And they had to sign a contract saying there would be no mention in any of the notes related to the recording that there had been a controversy back in 1939.

WERTHEIMER: When you hear her sing, as we just did, she is singing in a relatively high register, but you can just sense that she could go much higher and much lower with that voice. She had, what, three whole octaves at her command?

Dr. ARSENAULT: Yes, a really ethereal voice. You never mistake Marian Anderson for another singer. Every singer's voice, of course, is unique, but hers was extraordinarily different. When you read the commentary of the music critics in the 1930s, even in the south, they say things like, no, I've been covering music for 30 or 40 years, I've never heard anything like this. She took me to a place where I've never been before.

And this was not just musically, but I think culturally, in the sense, that she confounded the expectations. And she forced people to reshuffle the deck. It didn't make them racial integrationists overnight, but it gave them at least a glimpse of another world. And she accentuated this with her physical beauty, the way she dressed. She closed her eyes when she sang. There was this mystique about her that drew people to her.

WERTHEIMER: Raymond Arsenault, thank you very much.

Dr. ARSENAULT: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Arsenault's book is called "The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America." Ms. Anderson died in 1993 on April 8th. She was 96. And here is Marian Anderson again, singing on that Easter day, 70 years ago.

(Soundbite of song, "Ave Maria")

Ms. ANDERSON: (Singing) Ave maria. Gratia plena Maria.

WERTHEIMER: You can hear even more of Ms. Anderson's legendary recordings, visit And today at the Lincoln Memorial, Denise Graves, Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Chicago Children's Choir, plus the U.S. Marine Band will perform in the tribute to Marian Anderson. This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(Soundbite of song, "Ave Maria")

Ms. ANDERSON: (Singing) Ave maria.

(Soundbite of applause)

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