Marian Anderson was a popular opera singer in the 1930s. She was also African American. When she was barred from performing at a segregated concert venue, it set off a firestorm of negative press and led to a debate about segregation in DC. Acting quickly, arrangments were made for her to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The National Mall, and all National Parks, were integrated at this time. Anderson's performance was not only hugely popular, it resulted in the Lincoln Memorial being used as the standard backdrop of Civil Rights protest on the Mall, most famously with the 1963 March on Washington.
How did an opera singer impact Civil Rights on the Mall?
Marian Anderson was an opera singer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As an African American in a prodominately white profession, she faced even more challenges than most to gain her success. But with talent and perseverance she became the first African American to perform as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. She was also the first African American to perform at the White House, invited by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Despite her ability to break down racial barriers with her talent, some were still unwilling to allow integrated performances at their venues. In 1939 DAR Constittuion Hall in Washington, DC cancelled Anderson's performance on the grounds of her race. When word got out the people of DC were outraged, and the Roosevelt Administration sprang into action. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Department of the Interior Director Harold L. Ickes, along with the NAACP, took the necessary steps to allow Anderson to perfom at the Lincoln Memorial. Ickes was an advocate of African American civil rights who had integrated the National Park Service.
On Easter Sunday 1939 Marian Anderson performed to an integrated crowd of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Millions of listeners tuned in to hear the performance as well. This was a landmark moment in the history of civil rights on the Mall.
President Lincoln had a major impact on the African American community, both real and symbolic. But this legacy was, at times, troubled. The Lincoln Memorial has held a similar place in African American culture - representing both the shortcomings of the past and the promise of the future. The Lincoln Memorial became a primary focus on Civil Rights demonstrations on the National Mall. The 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, to name just a few, centered around the Lincoln Memorial.
Perhaps the most famous Civil Rights demonstration to use the Lincoln Memorial was the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This rally brought the Civil Rights Movement onto the national scene, showing the African American community's determination for full social, political, and economic rights. During the protest Martin Luther King famously gave his "I Have A Dream" speech for the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This choice has direct roots to Marian Anderson's concert, the first time an African American stood on those very steps in the face of segregation and demanded to be heard.