1957 - The first black woman to sing at the inauguration had been barred from Washington’s largest c
OnInauguration Day in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower prefaced his address to the nation with the same words he spoke at his first inauguration four years earlier. It was a prayer — and no president had done that before.
With the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, amid other social and racial unrest during his first term, Eisenhower prayed for strength in his Executive branch. “Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land,” said Eisenhower. “Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling.”
As a symbol of that sentiment, Eisenhower offered an invitation to Marian Anderson — the black contralto operatic singer who had somewhat reluctantly become a face of social change in America — to perform as the first African-American woman to sing the national anthem at the inauguration ceremony.
It was just one of many firsts for Anderson, who had spent previous decades selling out opera halls around the globe because of her immense talent of such a magnitude that the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini celebrated as one that comes around only once in a hundred years.
A review of her June 1931 Los Angeles concert described the experience thusly: “Even as she sings — rich, full-throated, glorious notes — you have the feeling she is listening to voices from another world. She is vital and powerfully magnetic, yet there is an absorbed, almost-mystic look in her half-closed eyes and slow, measure motions.”
Yet, no matter talent, just 18 years before singing the national anthem with Eisenhower standing behind her, it may have been unimaginable for her to be doing the same. Even though Anderson had become one of the top box office draws in the United States, she was still subject to the pervasive racist bias and policies of the era — ones that placed her in “colored” waiting rooms, hotels, dining rooms and train cars. Anderson, who preferred to steer clear of controversy, stayed with friends and, when it was possible, drove her own car, instead of taking the train.
“If I were inclined to be combative, I suppose I might insist on making an issue of these things. But that is not my nature, and I always bear in mind that my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow,” Anderson later wrote in her memoir.
However, in 1939, confrontation was no longer avoidable when Howard University and Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, approached the management of Constitution Hall about booking the venue on Easter Sunday for their annual fundraising concert after Anderson gradually outgrew other concert halls in Washington, DC. Constitution Hall, which had been built in 1929 by Daughters of the American Revolution, was the largest concert hall with a 4,000-person capacity, but the hall’s management turned Hurok away, saying that the venue was already booked. Hurok returned with a range of dates later in the month, but was given the same response. Hurok shortly thereafter learned that those dates had made been available to white performers, because the Daughters of the American Revolution accepted funding for the construction of the hall under the condition set by the largest donors that only whites were allowed to perform on stage.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had twice invited Anderson to perform at the White House, was a member of the DAR. So outraged upon hearing of the Constitution Hall controversy, she penned a scathing resignation letter. “I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist,” she wrote. “You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”
Although the president general of the DAR responded with the hope of alleviating “some of the misunderstanding,” Roosevelt had moved to take another course: quietly planning an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial overseen by the Department of the Interior on Easter Sunday 1939 — the same date the DAR and Constitution Hall denied Anderson.
On April 9, 1939, Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, introduced her saying, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. . . .Genius knows no color line.”
With Lincoln over her left shoulder, only a bank of microphones broadcasting to millions across the country separated her from 75,000 Americans of all races, genders and ages in their Sunday’s finest. It was, many times over, the largest audience she had ever seen — and 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.”
She opened the concert with the deeply patriotic song, “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” What some saw as defiance by changing the “I” to “We” in her rendition, others heard a message of solidarity. Many years later, Anderson explained why: “We cannot live alone,” she said. “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.”
Working through her nerves on that Easter Sunday, Anderson presented, as she had done so many times before, classical selections such as Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Donizetti’s “O mio Fernando.” After a short intermission, she returned with a selection of African-American spirituals, closing — with tears in her eyes — to “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Newspapers across the country acknowledged the significance of the moment with front page stories. One newsreel labeled it, “Nation’s Capital Gets Lesson in Tolerance.”
At the age of ten, Martin Luther King, Jr, who would also make the Lincoln Memorial his auditorium more than two decades later, absorbed the moment. Five years later, in an oratory contest on the topic of “The Negro and the Constitution,” a teenaged King referred to Anderson’s performance: “She sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
In 1943, Anderson was finally invited to perform at the DAR’s Constitution Hall for an American Red Cross war relief fundraiser. She held no grudges and performed several more times at Constitution Hall, including the launch of her farewell tour in 1964. In 1992, at the opening night ceremonies of the DAR annual convention, Anderson was awarded the Centennial Medallion — an honor for women who gave outstanding service to the nation.
In a statement on the organization’s website, the DAR says that it “deeply regrets that Marian Anderson was not given the opportunity to perform her 1939 Easter concert in Constitution Hall, but today we join all Americans in grateful recognition that her historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a pivotal point in the struggle for racial equality.”
It continues: “The beauty of her voice, amplified by her courage and grace, brought attention to the eloquence of the many voices urging our nation to overcome prejudice and intolerance. It sparked change not just in the DAR but in all of America.”
Of the 1943 Constitution Hall concert, Anderson downplayed the personal significance. “I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph,” Anderson said at the time. “I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall, and I was happy to sing in it.”
She did, however, refuse to perform unless Constitution Hall suspended its segregated seating policy for the concert.
Then, she sang.