JUDY WOODRUFF: Seventy-five years ago today, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson set a milestone in civil rights history.Tonight, we begin a series exploring iconic moments and legislation that continue to shape race relations in America.
Jeffrey Brown kicks it off with a look back at Anderson’s groundbreaking performance.
MAN: Seventy-five thousand massed behind Lincoln Memorial to hear Marian Anderson, colored contralto, make her capital debut at the great emancipator’s shrine.
JEFFREY BROWN: April 8, 1939, Marian Anderson made her statement against racism through the power and beauty of her voice.
JEFFREY BROWN: Three-quarters-of-a-century later, young people gathered at the same spot to honor Marian Anderson and commemorate her Easter Day concert.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Washington Performing Arts Society’s Children of Gospel Choir sang.
Annisse Murillo, a junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, told us why she’d wanted to take part.
ANNISSE MURILLO: This event today could show all these young people out here today to watch, they might want to go home and see, who is Marian Anderson? And they will go find out about her, and then the word will spread.
And it taught me a lot that you don’t have to get all angry to do something. You just have to keep going and kill people with kindness.
SALLY JEWELL, Secretary of the Interior: The light of her beautiful voice overcame the darkness of discrimination and intolerance to inspire an audience much larger than the hall where she was prevented from singing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Following those words from U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Washington, D.C., fourth-grader Sky Jabali-Rainey took on the role of Marian Anderson.
SKY JABALI-RAINEY: When I was refused the opportunity to sing at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, you see, 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.
I got nervous a little bit when I was up there.
She had the courage to get up and sing in front of thousands of people. If you’re afraid, then you have got to try to fight the fear.
JEFFREY BROWN: Anderson was a well-established name on European stages, but when her agent tried to book her into Washington’s Constitution Hall, the all-white organization Daughters of the American Revolution refused. No dates were available, Anderson was told. Concerts issued for the space made the message quite clear: concerts by white artists only.
An alternative performance at the Lincoln Memorial was arranged by supporters, who included first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Anderson sang of her country’s original promise.
JEFFREY BROWN: Anderson herself began singing in her Baptist church choir in Philadelphia. As children of modest means, she and two sisters were raised by their mother after their father died.
At 15, she took her first formal music lessons and at 30 went to Europe to establish herself in a more welcoming environment, as many black performers at the time did. She returned home in 1935 and was again confronted by a segregated America.
She spoke about the experience at the Lincoln Memorial, captured in a documentary produced by public station WETA.
MARIAN ANDERSON: I wasn’t a person, and am not to this day, a real great fighter for anything. There are people who will, if they want something, they fight, fight, fight, they don’t mind, with their feet and their hands and everything.
And those people are very, very necessary. But there are some who hope that, if they’re doing something worthwhile, that it will speak for them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Underlining that point, National Park Service Ranger Monamma Al-Ghuiyy spoke of the impact Anderson had on her personally in a chance meeting years ago.
MONAMMA AL-GHUIYY: She walked over to me and she put her hands on my cheek, and she said, “You are a beautiful woman, and I can see you will go far in life.”
I still get choked up, because to have someone to come to me and say that you are beautiful and you’re going to go far in life was a really big impact.
JEFFREY BROWN: The sun was shining again on the Lincoln Memorial this morning, much as it did 75 years ago, as the young Sky Jabali-Rainey, honored Marian Anderson with this reprise.
GWEN IFILL: That’s pretty.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. The Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library is commemorating the bill’s passage with a summit this week that will feature remarks from four living presidents.
On Thursday, we will have our own conversation from Austin about the Civil Rights Act five decades later.