Few moments in Civil Rights history are as important as the morning of Sunday April 9, 1939 when Marian Anderson sang before a throng of thousands lined up along the Mall by the Lincoln Memorial. She had been banned from the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall because she was black. When Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the DAR over the incident, took up Anderson's cause, however, it became a national issue. The controversy showed Americans that discrimination was not simply a regional problem. As Arsenault shows, Anderson's dignity and courage enabled her, like a female Jackie Robinson - but several years before him - to strike a vital blow for civil rights.
Today the moment still resonates. Postcards and CDs of Anderson are sold at the Memorial and Anderson is still considered one of the greats of 20th century American music. In a short but richly textured narrative, Raymond Arsenault captures the struggle for racial equality in pre-WWII America and a moment that inspired blacks and whites alike. In rising to the occasion, he writes, Marion Anderson "consecrated" the Lincoln Memorial as a shrine of freedom. In the 1963 March on Washington Martin Luther King would follow, literally, in her footsteps.
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of African-American contralto Marian Anderson's culture-shifting 1939 Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Memorial, the story of this underappreciated Civil Rights milestone resonates even louder in the wake of President Obama's election. Civil rights historian Arsenault (Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice) paints a detailed portrait of America's struggle for racial equality through one of the 20th century's most celebrated singers (of any color). Despite a 40-year career as a world-class entertainer, performing around the globe, Arsenault suffered innumerable racist indignities in her homeland, culminating in the controversial declaration by the Daughters of the American Revolution that barred her from performing in Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall. In defiance, Anderson and her entourage arranged for the free, open-air Easter concert, which drew an estimated crowd of 75,000. The peaceful demonstration struck a vital blow for civil rights, and in particular for integration at Constitution Hall, nearly 25 years before Martin Luther King's march on Washington. Arsenault relies heavily on historical manuscripts and newspaper articles, but his vivid understanding of the players keeps the narrative fresh and insightful. Anderson died in 1993, at age 96, but this vivid tribute to her work and times does her memory a great service.