Dr. Larry Burriss Viewpoint: MARIAN ANDERSON

Contralto Marian Anderson sang at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939, to an estimated crowd of 75,000 people.


In 1954, Marian Anderson became the first black singer to be hired by the Metropolitan Opera. And in 1955, she became the first black singer to have a major role in a Met production. She was 57 years old at the time.



Fifteen years earlier, and 81 years ago this week, on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Anderson sang a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, putting on display what Arturo Toscanini said was a voice that came along only once a century.
What makes the April 9, 1939, date significant is that earlier in the year Anderson had wanted to use Constitution Hall, in Washington, D.C., for a concert. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution, apparently forgetting that the first person to killed in the revolutionary war was a black man, Crispus Atticks, denied her the use of the hall. She was told that all six dates she wanted were already booked. But when a friend asked about the dates, they were all open.
So, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson appeared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where some 75-thousand people assembled to hear her sing. And her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” was later described as rivaling the scene years later when the Revered Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.”



But even when she appeared at the Met, after she was internationally famous, prejudice remained. After soprano Zinka Milanov embraced her during the curtain calls, she received hate mail from some of the opera’s patrons.
Following her death, Bruce Burroughs wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In the final analysis, one didn’t have to be black or American or a musician or even a music lover to be moved by Marian Anderson in a way and to a depth that is beyond the power of words to describe. One only had to be human.”
I’m Larry Burriss.

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)