This Historic Marian Anderson Performance Made Her an Icon of the Civil Rights Movement

Marian Anderson (1897-1993) African American contralto singing at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, Easter Sunday, 1939. World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo


Listen to the full original radio broadcast.

Marian Anderson, the legendary African American contralto, sang at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939 after she was refused a performance at Washington’s Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black. Over 75,000 people attended the performance, which was broadcast live on the radio and arranged in part by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the support of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, who introduced the broadcast.

It was a bold protest against racial intolerance, performed before a diverse crowd. In that moment, Anderson — despite being a fiercely private person — transformed into a symbol for the nascent civil rights movement, even inspiring a 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who listened on the radio.

Here’s Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial program. The final spiritual was cut off from the radio broadcast recording due to technological limitations at the time.

“America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)”
“O Mio Fernando,” from the opera La Favorite by Gaetano Donizetti
“Ave Maria,” traditional, music by Franz Schubert
“Gospel Train,” traditional, arrangement by Henry Burleigh
“Trampin’,” by Edward Boatner
“My Soul is Anchored in the Lord,” arrangement by Florence Price

The original broadcast was restored and divided into tracks, available via this Spotify playlist:

And the final song from the Lincoln Memorial concert, cut off from the original broadcast recording, was arranged by the first African American woman to gain national prominence as a composer, Florence Price:

A documentary film on Marian Anderson is currently in production for American Masters for broadcast on PBS.

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