At the height of the civil rights movement in 1963, these famous words were spoken from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not the first to raise his voice from those steps with a message of hope for America’s future. That distinction belongs to the world-famous contralto Marian Anderson, whose performance at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, made a compelling case for the transformative power of music, and in a place typically associated with the power of words.
Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called “a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.” But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” When the D.A.R. refused to allow Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall because of her skin color, the organization lost one of its most influential members: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt and many other women quit the D.A.R. in protest of its discriminatory action, which soon became a cause célèbre.
The invitation to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial came directly from the Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, who proclaimed in his introduction of Marian Anderson on that Easter Sunday that “Genius draws no color line.” There was nothing overtly political in the selection of songs Anderson performed that day before a gathered crowd of 75,000 and a live radio audience of millions. But the message inherent in an African American woman singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” while standing before the shrine of America’s Great Emancipator was crystal clear.
Abraham Lincoln’s famous words—”With malice toward none; with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds”—are carved in massive letters on the exterior wall of the Lincoln Memorial. This was the theme that Anderson advanced with the power of her incredible voice as she stood in front of those words on this day in 1939. It was a performance now recognized as an important prelude to the movement to come.