[by Earl Blacklock] Marian Anderson was a black singer in the U.S. whose singing ability was considered exceptional. Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini once told her she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years.”
In 1925, she began singing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and was an immediate success. She followed that up with an appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1928, and a tour of Europe in the 1930s. She sang at the White House for the President and the King and Queen of England.
A black singer in the U.S. during the 1930s faced enormous obstacles. In 1939, she was barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) from playing at Constitution Hall. There was a public outcry against the decision, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President. She, along with thousands of other DAR members, cancelled her membership in the organization in protest. She went further, helping to persuade Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to permit Marian to sing in an open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
On Easter Sunday, 1939, 75 thousand people of all colors gathered at the memorial to hear this famed contralto. Millions more listened by radio. It was one of the most important achievements for a black artist in U.S. history.
She followed that up in 1943 with a concert at Constitution Hall, this time at the invitation of the DAR as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross.
Marian broke down barriers wherever she went. She sang at the inauguration of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. In 1958, she was appointed a delegate to the United Nations. In 1963, she again sang at the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington, and in the same year, became a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1977, she was awarded the United Nations Peace Prize. She died in 1993 at 96.
Despite her success, Marian Anderson remained humble. Her manager, concert promoter Sol Hurok, said about her “Marian Anderson is virtually the only artist I’ve handled who has never turned temperamental on me.”
A reporter once asked Marian what she considered to be the greatest moment in her life. He expected her to speak about her European concerts, her appearances at the White House, or her triumph at the Lincoln Memorial. But she spoke of none of these. Instead, she said her greatest moment was the day she was able, because of her success, to tell her mother she wouldn’t have to take in washing any more.
Marian Anderson understood what it meant to have great success, made all the more significant because of the great challenges she had to overcome because of her race. Nevertheless, she considered her greatest moment the day when she could honor her mother for her life of hard work. She obeyed the commandment “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).