Marian Anderson sang and the walls of racial bias fell


NEW YORK -- Marian Anderson sang and the walls of racial bias came tumbling down.

It wasn't quite that simple. It took years and help from such diverse people as first lady Eleanaor Roosevelt and violinist Isaac Stern, but in the end she won the acclaim that her voice should always have entitled her to.


She was the first black to sing with New York City's Metropolitan Opera, she sang at the inaugurations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and although she officially retired in 1965 after a farewell concert in Carnegie Hall, she remains well remembered. This year she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which may have been a little anticlimactic.

Viewers will get a comprehensive look at her life in 'Marian Anderson,' an hour-long documentary to air on PBS Wednesday, May 8 at 9 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings).

More important than the facts, viewers will get a chance to see and hear her perform, from the moving rendition of 'Deep River' that reflects the beginnings of her career as a church singer, to the 'Ave Maria' that she found struck a chord among people of many backgrounds, to her rendition of 'My Country 'Tis Of Thee' with the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln looking on at the Lincoln Memorial.


Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 17, 1902, when the country was only 40 years from slavery. She began singing in church, from the time she was 6 years old until she was 20. Her mother was a widow supported her family as a cleaning woman.

Anderson recalls that one of the proudest moments of her life was when she was earning enough money as a singer to notify the department store where her mother worked that 'Mother won't be in to work any more.'

She studied voice, undeterred by her reception at a Philadelphia conservatory where she was told by a receptionist, 'We don't take black people here.'

In 1920 she embarked on her first concert tour, performing at churches and schools throughout the South.

She won prizes for her singing in the United States, but the opportunities were narrow for a black singer. In 1925, she went to Europe and, like other black performers, found acceptance there, particularly in Scandinavia.

Maestro Arturo Toscanini heard her sing and said, 'A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.'

In 1934, nine years after leaving the United States, Anderson sang her first concert in Leningrad and it was almost as if she were the Madonna of her day as adoring Russians pounded their fists on the stage in appreciation.


Impresario Sol Hurok was captivated by her voice when he attended a concert in Paris and became her manager, arranging her return to the United States for a concert at New York's Town Hall.

Howard Taubman, the critic for The New York Times, calls hers 'one of the great voices of her time.'

She made some movie shorts, but despite her talent concerts presented problems, particularly in the South where her regal bearing unsettled some and where she had to suffer the snubs and discomforts of Jim Crow. Then there was the question of admitting blacks -- and if black were allowed to buy tickets, where would they sit?

In 1936, she sang at the White House for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1939, Marian Anderson was not allowed to sing at Constituion Hall in Washington, D.C., a facility run by the Daughters of the American Revolution that barred black performers.

Sol Hurok proposed six different dates. Management said the Hall was booked for each of them. Hurok went to a rival manager who agreed to call and ask about those dates. They were all available.

Mrs. Roosevelt was among the first to rally 'round, publically resigning from the DAR. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes helped, too, and the result was an Easter concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial.


For one observor, black performer Todd Duncan, the moment when she sang 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' rivaled the scene years later when the Rev. Martin Luther King gave his 'I have a dream' speech.

Duncan said he had never been so pround to be an American, never so proud to be an American Negro, 'seeing this Negro woman stand up there with this great royal dignity.'

It was not until 1953 that Marian Anderson sang a solo concert at Constitution Hall. Two years later she became the first black to sing with the Metropoliltan Opera.

Among the other honors afforded her, she served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Award for lifetime achievement and the National Medal of Arts Award.

Marian Anderson says she never set out to change the world -- although she did.

'I wasn't a real great fighter for anything,' she says. 'There are people who will, if they want something, they fight, fight, fight ... and those people are very, very necessary. But there are some who hope that if they're doing something worthwhile, it will speak for them.'NEWLN:


Latest Headlines