WASHINGTON – More than 2,000 people gathered Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial for a concert honoring the 70th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s historic performance there in 1939.
Because of the color of her skin, Anderson was denied the opportunity to perform at nearby Constitution Hall and local high school. So, instead, the opera singer sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in April 1939 to a crowd of 75,000 blacks and whites standing together.
In the Sunday afternoon sunshine, African-American opera star Denyce Graves performed three of the same songs Anderson sang 70 years ago: “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee),” “O, Mio Fernando” and “Ave Maria.”
Wearing one of Anderson’s dresses, Graves called her predecessor “one of my greatest heroes.”
“It is the honor of my life and my career to be celebrating this day of freedom with you,” she told the audience.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell recited excerpts from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Afterward he remarked on Lincoln’s famous call to heal the nation’s wounds after the Civil War, “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” telling the audience they should aspire to those words.
The Chicago Children’s Choir, women’s a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and the U.S. Marine Band also performed.
Introducing a number called “Would You Harbor Me,” a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock said the song was “written because this country has been a harborer to so many, but at the same time it has rejected so many.”
Those words highlight Anderson’s own story. She grew up in poverty in South Philadelphia, but became famous in the 1930s, performing for royalty and in major concert halls in Europe, New York and Philadelphia.
When her manager tried to book Anderson at Constitution Hall, the largest venue in segregated Washington at the time, she was rejected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the hall and prohibited African-Americans from performing there. The district’s school board also turned her away from singing at a school auditorium.
Following the hourlong performance about 200 people were sworn in as U.S. citizens, symbolizing the rights all Americans are guaranteed.