Born in 1897, American contralto Marian Anderson was the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera (Verdi's "Masked Ball," 1955). Equally gifted in renditions of spirituals and German lieder, Anderson combined her faith, dignity, and gentle spirit with her uniquely beautiful voice. The great conductor Toscanini felt that "hers is a voice that we hear only once in a hundred years."
When Anderson's scheduled performance at Constitution Hall was not permitted by the Daughters of the American Revolution (which caused Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the D.A.R.), Anderson sang instead outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939 to an audience of 75,000 people. Afterwards she observed, "I could not run away from the situation. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear."
Anderson gave concerts all over the world as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States Department of State. She sang at the inaugurals of Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, and received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Anderson wrote, "There are many persons ready to do what is right, because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move — and he, in turn, waits for you. The minute a person whose word means a great deal dares to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. Not everyone can be turned aside from meanness and hatred, but the great majority of Americans is heading in that direction. I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country."
Here are some ways to Name This Day by reflecting on Marian Anderson’s wisdom, writing in your journal or sharing your thoughts with a friend, and watching her performances.
"I hadn't set out to change the world in any way, because I knew that I couldn't. And whatever I am, it is a culmination of the goodwill, the help and understanding of the many people that I have met around the world who have, regardless of anything else, seen me as I am, not trying to be somebody else."
"The minute a person whose word means a great deal to others dare to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow."
"None of us is responsible for the complexion of his skin. This fact of nature offers no clue to the character or quality of the person underneath."
"No matter how big a nation is, it is no stronger that its weakest people, and as long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might otherwise."
'I do not have to tell you that I dearly love the Negro spirituals. They are the unburdenings of the sorrows of an entire race, which, finding scant happiness on earth, turns to the future for its joys."
"Prayer begins where human capacity ends."
Marian Anderson did not originally set out to be a guiding light in the fight for equality; she simply followed her conscience and her passion. Here's her view of the role that emerged for her: "Certainly I have my feelings about conditions that affect my people. But it is not right for me to try to mimic somebody who writes, or who speaks. That is their forte. I think first of music and of being there where music is, and of music being where I am. What I had was singing, and if my career has been of some consequence, then that's my contribution."
Reflect in your journal and, if you wish, share with a friend, a significant way that you contribute to a matter of conscience you care about.
Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial:
This hour-long biographical portrait on the Kultur program features extensive footage of Marian Anderson's singing and a further window into her regal character:
Websites & Organizations
The University of Pennsylvania library offers a special collection of photos, stories and quotes for you to enjoy: "Marian Anderson: A Life in Song."