Her voice was haunting, soulful and powerful.
Her dulcet contralto had been known to bring people to tears or render them speechless.
Some 75 years after her iconic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson’s legacy and voice are remembered as a vehicle that pushed past entertainment and helped propel a racially divided nation toward change.
That is why Washington Performing Arts is celebrating the 75th anniversary of her iconic open-air performance at the Lincoln Memorial—often pointed to as an important moment in civil rights history.
“Here was a woman with a fantastic gift who did whatever she could to further and make it possible for others to come after her and she was very clear about that,” Sandra Grymes, Anderson’s cousin, told The Root.
“She was very clear that as a black person in her time that what one did was behave in ways that helped the race and helped black people that came after you.”
1939 was a trying time in the nation for black Americans as they dealt with hateful prejudice. Being a famous singer did not protect Anderson from the prejudices that came with the color of her skin. Although renowned in Europe and well loved and admired in her own right in her home country, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson the opportunity to perform before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall simply because she was black. She was also barred from using the auditorium of a white public high school.
This prompted a national outcry, with furious members of the DAR, including then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigning from the organization in protest.
But the protest didn’t stop there.
An open-air concert was ultimately organized with the NAACP’s and Roosevelt’s help, where Anderson defied all odds and sang before an audience of 75,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert also touched the airwaves and was heard by millions across the country.