June 29, 2015

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

  • By: Kara Timberlake

In 2015 the National Trust produced a series of stories for a summer concert series, where we put the spotlight on places that witnessed some of the most memorable musical performances in American history. Some are traditional venues, and others… well, not so much. But they all have two things in common: terrific music and fascinating history.

Liner Notes

Performer(s): Marian Anderson, accompanied by pianist Kosti Vehanen

Venue: Lincoln Memorial

Location: Washington, D.C.

Date: April 9, 1939 (Easter Sunday)

Memorable Moment: Then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes introduced Anderson to the stage, saying “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.”

Show Vibe: More than 75,000 crowded the National Mall while millions of radio listeners tuned in to hear Anderson.

Marian Anderson performs before a massive crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Full Program

A crowd of thousands looked on as contralto singer Marian Anderson gave a free, open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, helping to set the stage for the upcoming civil rights movement. Sitting in the backdrop, Daniel Chester French's Abraham Lincoln bore witness to one of the defining musical events of the 20th century.

Barred from performing at the nearby Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was Black, Anderson’s plight became a national platform.

Once news emerged that Anderson was denied access of the concert hall because of a white-artist-only clause, thousands expressed outrage, including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt who withdrew her membership from the organization.

With encouragement from Roosevelt; Anderson’s manger, Sol Hurok; and then-Executive Secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged for Anderson to perform an open-air recital on the National Mall. On that Easter Sunday, Anderson helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights era.

Her performance included her now-famous rendition of "My Country, ‘Tis of Thee." Embracing the spirit of community, Anderson made a switch in the third line of the tune, singing “to thee we sing” instead of “of thee I sing.”

Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes congratulates Marian Anderson on her performance.

Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939, in Washington, D.C.

However, this performance was only the warm-up act for Anderson’s involvement in civil rights work. She continued to break racial barriers when she took the stage as the first Black American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955. She would also go on to perform for both President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s and President John F. Kennedy’s inaugurations in 1957 and 1961, respectively.

Anderson’s memorable Easter concert inspired generations of Black people, and the Lincoln Memorial has since served as host to many historic speeches on civil rights and other important topics, most notably Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 I Have a Dream speech.

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