Why Marian Anderson Matters

By Anika Smith Published on February 27, 2015

On this day in 1897, one of the greatest singers God ever gave the world was born in Philadelphia. Marian Anderson had a voice that “only comes around once in a hundred years,” but she became a civil rights icon when 75,000 people gathered to hear her sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

“A singer starts by having his instrument as a gift from God . . . When you have been given something in a moment of grace, it is sacrilegious to be greedy.” — Marian Anderson

It Started in Church

She was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897. She began her career in her Baptist church choir at age 6, but she had to go to work at age 12 when her father died. By 14 she could sing any part in the choir, and her expressive contralto convinced her community to invest in her future. A collection began for the “Marian Anderson’s Future Fund,” and Marian had money to go to music school.

Facing a World Broken by Racism

But when she applied to a Philadelphia music school, she was refused because of her race:

“I don’t think I said a word,” Anderson later wrote. “It was as if a cold, horrifying hand had been laid on me. I turned and walked out. It was my first contact with the blunt, brutal words, and this school of music was the last place I expected to hear them.”

Instead of giving up, Marian kept looking for opportunities to sing. Her talent was recognized by a music teacher who supported her as she won vocal competitions while filling church auditoriums with black audiences who enjoyed her expressive interpretations of spirituals and classic pieces.

She was never far from her faith, as this lovely documentary from Day of Discovery shows.

Success Abroad

She found a more appreciative audience when she toured Europe, charming critics who recognized the genius in the stately girl.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius met her and took one of his orchestral pieces and set it with Swedish lyrics. He dedicated the result, “Solitude,” to Marian and had her sing it, to great acclaim:

“Upon the rivers of Babylon, I sat and wept….” It’s a setting of Psalm 137, a song of exile appropriate to the American who found her first professional audience overseas.

Becoming a Civil Rights Icon

Marian returned to the States with solid publicity from her European tour and was signed to tour select U.S. venues — those that would allow a black performer. In 1936 she was invited to sing at the White House and made a friend in Eleanor Roosevelt.

This relationship would be crucial three years later, when Roosevelt learned that the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent Constitution Hall to Marian’s concert promoters. Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and led the effort to find another venue for Anderson’s performance.

In the end, what would have been just another stellar performance became a powerful civil rights demonstration. Marian Anderson gave an Easter concert performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people and was broadcast to millions of live radio listeners.

Marian Anderson never intended to become an icon. She wrote once that she was not a fighter — but she was definitely a singer. “When I sing, I don’t want them to see that my face is black. I don’t want them to see that my face is white. I want them to see my soul, and that is colorless.”

But for her black audience, Marian was a revelation. Listen to 96-year-old Therell Smith share what it was like seeing Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial:

It was not enough. But it was a beginning.

Growing Prominence and Another First

Marian was now in the national spotlight. She had the ears of American opera lovers, as this delightful newsreel shows:

Still, it would be another 16 years before she would make her debut on the American stage, singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her “breakthrough” role was Ulrica, the sorceress in Verdi’s Un ballo en maschera, but she was already in her late 50s. Her face was as lovely and her form as stately, but her voice was beginning to show signs of age:

From an NPR story celebrating the anniversary of her opera debut:

Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News, says Anderson was made for the role of Ulrica.

“The role of the sorceress is something that depends a lot on the charisma of the performer, the ability to suggest a world beyond what you are seeing in front of you,” Driscoll says. “And that’s what Marian Anderson did every time she walked onstage.”

Anderson later said she felt the pressure of that first performance: “I was there onstage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.” Despite her nerves, and that she was in the twilight of her career, the performance received a huge ovation.

“Men as well as women were dabbing at their eyes,” a New York Times reviewer wrote.

It was long-deserved recognition — Marian Anderson was a generous singer, performing recitals wherever she was welcomed — even if the welcome were dubious.

International Welcome, Stateside Segregation

A Korean woman remembers seeing Marian on a 1957 tour in South Korea:

How much we Koreans loved her performance. It was the time our country was still recovering from the trauma of the war, and the Music Hall was going through a renovation process, thus Anderson’s first and last recital in Korea took place in the auditorium of a woman’s college in a suburb of Seoul.

But her performance didn’t suffer in the acoustically flawed auditorium nor did it suffer on the poorly lit stage. As Anderson’s rich, velvety voice filled the auditorium I was pleasantly carried into her music world. While she sang Negro spirituals, I was one of the cotton pickers in Georgia, lamenting my slavery under the merciless sun. At some point of the evening, it was as though I was on the stage singing my heart’s content, telling of my sorrow, my faith in God and my longing for freedom.

This young Korean girl became a cellist with the Kansas City Philharmonic, where she learned more of Anderson’s struggles in the mid-1960s:

While the media raved about her accomplishments and her magnetic musicality, listing the names of kings, queens, and presidents around the globe she had entertained and what titles and honors she had received, not a single hotel owner offered the celebrated singer a room to stay. Anderson had no choice but to commute from a hotel in the predominantly black community east of downtown in a taxicab for four days.

The Legacy of a Humble Genius

Marian Anderson retired soon after this incident, enjoying life with her family (she had married in 1943) on her farm in Connecticut. It’s a testament to her character that after years of discrimination, she refused preferential treatment as a celebrity when restaurants and shops wanted her to skip ahead of the line.

She was remembered by those who knew her best as someone who was warm, caring, and not aware of herself as a great singer or a civil rights icon. Her faith in God as the one who gave the gift guarded her from arrogance and preserved her sweet nature.

Listen to this classic spiritual and remember the gift God gave us in Marian Anderson today:

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