At 42, contralto Marian Anderson was famous in Europe and the U.S., but had never faced such an enormous crowd. There were 75,000 people in the audience that day, 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."
So, in the chilly April dusk, Anderson stepped onto a stage built over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." Her first notes show no sign of nerves. Her voice is forceful and sweet. And the choice of music — that opening song — is remarkable, given the circumstances. The NBC Blue Network announcer explained the unusual venue this way: "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 wishes to hear her."
That was hardly the story. According to Anderson biographer Allan Keiler, she was invited to sing in Washington by Howard University as part of its concert series. And because of Anderson's international reputation, the university needed to find a place large enough to accommodate the crowds. Constitution Hall was such a place, but the Daughters of the American Revolution owned the hall.
"They refused to allow her use of the hall," Keiler says, "because she was black and because there was a white artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR."
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.
One of the members of the DAR was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Outraged by the decision, Roosevelt sent a letter of resignation and wrote about it in her weekly column, "My Day." "They have taken an action which has been widely criticized in the press," she wrote. "To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning."
The DAR did not relent. According to Keiler, the idea to sing outdoors came from Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP. Since the Lincoln Memorial was a national monument, the logistics for the day fell to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. It was Ickes who led Anderson onto the stage on April 9, 1939.
'Of Thee We Sing'
She began with "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" — also known as "America" — a deeply patriotic song. When she got to the third line of that well-known tune, she made a change. Instead of "of thee I sing" she sang "to thee we sing."
A quiet, humble person, Anderson often used "we" when speaking about herself. Years after the concert, she 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."