Photo taken from http://www.thecelebritypix.com.
Genius draws no color lines, and so it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice in tribute to the noble Lincoln, whom mankind will ever honor.
-Secretary of the interior Harlod Ickes introducing Marian Anderson at her groundbreaking concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
March is women’s history month. For this reason I have decided to dedicate Musician Monday in honor of two women who are not only important figures in women’s history and music but also instrumental in shaping a critical moment that put a spotlight on the struggle for civil rights.
It all started in January of 1939, when *students and officials from Howard University along with the NAACP (For our international readers, Howard University is a college that is historically significant in the battle for civil rights in the USA) decided to petition the Daughters of the American Revolution for permission to hold a concert at Constitution Hall so that internationally renowned African American opera singer Marian Anderson could sing at a benefit concert to raise funds for the school. Howard University organized thistype of benefit concert yearly for Marian Anderson to sing at and chose Constitution Hall because Anderson had become so popular that a larger venue was essential.
Unfortunately, the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) were a radical “patriotic” and racist group at the time and they rejected the request due to their stringent “whites only” policy. (Disgusting, I know). Enter First lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt had gained membership in the DAR, due to the popularity of her husband, FDR. As soon as the FLOTUS got word of what was going on she decided that something had to be done about the situation. Initially she was unsure of how to deal with the controversial issue as her husband had many racist southern supporters. Her hesitation did not last long however, and on February 26th of 1939 she sent a telegram to the DAR, announcing her resignation from the group. Below is the text of said telegram.
My dear Mrs. Henry Robert Jr. ,
I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign, or whether I continue to be a member of your organization.
However, 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 the opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.
I realize that many people will not agree with me, but feeling as I do this seems to me the only proper procedure to follow.
Very sincerely yours
The feisty FLOTUS did not stop at a mere resignation. She also took to her weekly column “My Day”, a syndicated newspaper column which boasted 4 million readers to disseminate her views on the entire sordid ordeal. This action brought the struggle of civil rights to the national spotlight, and Roosevelt became heavily involved in securing a much larger and more symbolic venue for Anderson’s concert: The Lincoln Memorial.
Roosevelt and Anderson’s supporters were successful. On Easter Day, 1939 Marian Anderson performed at the The Lincoln Memorial in front of a 75,000 strong desegregated audience of dignitaries and regular folks. The concert was also broadcast over radio and Anderson’s rich contralto voice was heard in the homes of millions of people from myriad racial heritages across the nation.
Eleanor Roosevelt did not attend the concert, she did not want to draw attention away from Anderson. Anderson herself continued to be a pioneer in the civil rights movement. She became the first African American to sing at The Metropolitan Opera and in 1963 she returned to the Lincoln Memorial and performed for 200,ooo people the day that Martin Luther King Jr. told the world all about his dream.
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*There is a lot of conflicting information out there regarding the original purpose of the concert, whether it was to raise funds for the school or not. The information I have shared here is to the best of my knowledge the most accurate but please correct me if I am wrong.