Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson, Washington Mall, April 9, 1939
On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, the great American contralto Marian Anderson performed in Washington DC in front of a live audience estimated at 75,000 and a radio audience perhaps in the millions. Performing with her was longtime accompanist, pianist Kosti Vehanen. By 1939, Miss Anderson had a tremendous following in Europe, especially in the north, where she had developed a close relationship with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who proclaimed that her singing had "penetrated the Nordic soul". No less of a figure than the venerable conductor Arturo Toscanini declared Anderson's, "the voice of the century." Despite those prodigious credentials, Anderson still found difficulties performing in her own country because of her race. The most famous snub came at the hands of the Daughters of the American Revolution who in 1939 barred her from performing in Constitution Hall, a large venue in Washington DC owned by the DAR. Less well known is that Anderson was even barred from performing in a white District of Columbia high school. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, famously resigned from the DAR, but came under criticism when she failed to the comment on the issue of the Board of Education's ban, perhaps because it would not have been politically prudent for her and her husband to do so. Nevertheless, in response to the snub, Mrs. Roosevelt and her husband the president, convinced Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open-air concert on the Washington Mall. The stage for Miss Anderson and Mr. Vehanen was built upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with Daniel Chester French's famous marble image of the 16th president looking over the singer's shoulder. Ickes introduced Miss Anderson that evening by telling the crowd to great applause: "In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free." The secretary added: "Genius draws no color line." You can hear his entire introduction and Miss Anderson singing the opening verse of "America" (My Country, 'Tis of Thee) here.

Martin Luther King who was ten years old at the time was greatly moved by the event. Five years later during an oratory contest, the future civil rights leader and martyr would say this:
She sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows the 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. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America.
It cannot be a coincidence that standing upon the exact spot nearly 25 years later, Dr. King would also quote "America", using the song's first verses's closing words: "let freedom ring" as the lead in to the rousing conclusion of his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The great symbolism of the event was not lost upon much of the nation. One newsreel prefaced its story of the recital with the following: "Nation’s Capital Gets Lesson in Tolerance." But that lesson was a brief respite, like the moment of calm inside the eye of a hurricane. The United States was bitterly divided by race, the military about to go to war was segregated, the government was about to persecute tens of thousands of American citizens because of their Japanese heritage. Jim Crow laws were still on the books in the south and poll taxes and other restrictions would continue to disenfranchise American citizens for another three decades. And yes Miss Anderson's hotel options in this country were still limited.

Unfortunately as bad as it was in the United States, things were much worse in Europe. In the thirties while the continent welcomed Miss Anderson with open arms, the writing was already on the wall for Europe's Jewish community as well as members of other ethnic minorities deemed unacceptable by society. Less than five months after Marian Anderson's Washington Mall concert, Germany invaded Poland to mark the beginning of the most terrible war humankind has ever experienced. The world that everyone knew up to that point was about to end.

I can't begin to estimate the significance of the event that took place three quarters of a century ago. It was a tremendous, if fleeting victory for justice and decency. Looking at those iconic photographs of Marian Anderson standing and singing upon this nation's most hallowed spot fills me with a great deal of pride and sadness. The sadness comes from the remembrance of the struggle, inhuman cruelty, and suffering that took place on so many levels for so long after that glorious event. The pride comes from the fact that our country and our government actually did something right. 

Corny as it may sound, for one brief, shining moment 75 years ago today, the good guys won.

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