Watch Opera Legend Marian Anderson’s Historic Performance on the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial (1939)

Near­ly every Civ­il Rights icon becomes more of a sym­bol than a com­plex human being over time, a con­se­quence of iconog­ra­phy in gen­er­al. This has cer­tain­ly been the case with opera singer Mar­i­an Ander­son. “If Amer­i­cans know one fact about the leg­endary African-Amer­i­can con­tral­to Mar­i­an Ander­son,” Kira Thur­man writes at The New York­er, “it’s that she sang in defi­ance on the steps of the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al, in 1939.”

We prob­a­bly also know that Ander­son took to the steps of the mon­u­ment again in 1963 to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” before Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.‘s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Wash­ing­ton. In her offi­cial por­trait at the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery, she stands regal­ly before the Lin­coln Memo­ri­al’s columns in her fur coat, gaz­ing res­olute­ly into the mid­dle dis­tance, her hair gray with age and wis­dom. It’s the defin­ing image of an artist whose defi­ance has come to over­shad­ow her art.

The image is an undoubt­ed­ly pow­er­ful one, a key moment in the seem­ing­ly unend­ing strug­gle for jus­tice in the Unit­ed States, as well as “one of the most impor­tant musi­cal events of the 20th cen­tu­ry,” Anas­ta­sia Tsioul­cas writes at NPR. Ander­son “had nev­er faced such an enor­mous crowd” — 75,000 peo­ple of all races and back­grounds. “She was ter­ri­fied,” and lat­er wrote, “I could not run away from this sit­u­a­tion. If I had any­thing to offer, I would have to do so now.” She may have con­fessed to stage fright that day, but some char­ac­ter­i­za­tions do not do jus­tice to her pro­fes­sion­al­ism. Ander­son did not fear crowds or big­otry.

When she sang at the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al, Ander­son was 42 years old and very much an inter­na­tion­al star. Four years ear­li­er, she had returned from Europe “as one of the most revered peo­ple on the plan­et” and per­formed at the White House for Eleanor Roo­sevelt. It was Roo­sevelt who arranged the 1939 Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al con­cert — after resign­ing from the Daugh­ters of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion when the all-white group refused to rent the 4,000-seat Con­sti­tu­tion Hall to Howard Uni­ver­si­ty for their annu­al con­cert event for Ander­son.

Roo­sevelt had and would con­tin­ue to inter­vene in many such instances of racism, using her pow­er for demo­c­ra­t­ic good. Ander­son, while not an activist, was not new to musi­cal protest. In 1935, her appli­ca­tion to sing at the Salzburg Fes­ti­val in Aus­tria had been sim­i­lar­ly reject­ed, on the heels of a Nazi riot over Black bari­tone Aubrey Pankey’s per­for­mance in the city ear­li­er that year. “What Ander­son did next illus­trates a pat­tern of behav­ior that she would deploy as a weapon through­out her career,” Thur­man writes. “She showed up any­way.”

Ander­son held a small con­cert for a few devot­ed lis­ten­ers at Mozar­teum con­cert hall, then a few days lat­er in a hotel ball­room for “hun­dreds of elite musi­cians, who applaud­ed her act of defi­ance,” and shared in it them­selves. After this con­cert, famed con­duc­tor Arturo Toscani­ni met her back­stage and said, “What I heard today one is priv­i­leged to hear only once in a hun­dred years.” Ander­son, “became an inter­na­tion­al super­star overnight.” She built a rep­u­ta­tion through bold acts of defi­ance, but her great­est con­tri­bu­tions were always to music.

The “dig­ni­fied, sto­ic, mid­dle-aged Black woman” who appeared at the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al was young once, writes Thur­man, and as much a sen­sa­tion in Europe as Josephine Bak­er. She’s been char­ac­ter­ized as “mod­est” and self-effac­ing, but she was also ambi­tious, an incred­i­bly tal­ent­ed child prodi­gy who knew she would find too many doors closed in the U.S. Like many Black artists of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, she became a con­fi­dent, cel­e­brat­ed ex-pat: “Walk­ing down Salzburg’s hilly cob­ble­stone streets dur­ing her first day in the Alpine city, in the sum­mer of 1925, Ander­son was trailed by a cadre of jour­nal­ists every­where she went.”

Ten years lat­er, Ander­son would find things very much changed in Europe, and find her­self feel­ing as alien­at­ed in for­mer­ly wel­com­ing Aus­tria as she had in her home coun­try. (She was mourned by her Aus­tri­an fans. One crit­ic wrote of her last per­for­mance, “[her] music makes those peo­ple hap­py who have not yet giv­en up their belief that all men are equal.”) By 1939, Ander­son was a vet­er­an not only of opera and music hall stages around the world, but of fac­ing up to racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“A qui­et, hum­ble per­son,” writes NPR’s Susan Stam­berg, “Ander­son often used ‘we’ when speak­ing about her­self,” refer­ring to the “many peo­ple whom we will nev­er know,” she once said, but who make our lives pos­si­ble. In the first song she sang at the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al, “My Coun­try, ‘Tis of Thee,” she changed the words of the third line from “of thee I sing” to “to thee we sing,” a move that “can be heard as an embrace, imply­ing com­mu­ni­ty and group respon­si­bil­i­ty.” It could also imply Ander­son­’s con­scious­ness of her­self and her com­mu­ni­ty as mar­gin­al­ized out­siders in the coun­try of their birth, or her sense of her­self as address­ing an inte­grat­ed nation in that chilly, Novem­ber out­door crowd.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Brook­lyn Acad­e­my of Music Puts Online 70,000 Objects Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of the Per­form­ing Arts: Down­load Play­bills, Posters & More

Hear the High­est Note Sung in the 137-Year His­to­ry of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera

Hear Singers from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Record Their Voic­es on Tra­di­tion­al Wax Cylin­ders

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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