It was 83 years ago this Easter, April 19, that Marian Anderson gave her memorable concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Wearing her fur coat on a cool, damp and drizzly afternoon, she began to sing: “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee, I sing.”
Six years later, as a boy of 12 in Bakersfield, I knew nothing of that concert (which can be viewed here), nor that she had been refused lodging at the Hotel Padre in our town when she arrived to give a recital.
My father took me to that concert at the Fox Theater. It was unlike anything I’d experienced. The smooth richness of her voice, like cream it seemed, the quiet dignity of her bearing, and the mystery of how her voice could reach deep inside you, even if you were a boy.
The concert began with Bach’s “All is Fulfilled” from the St. John Passion and concluded with the spiritual, “My Soul’s been Anchored in the Lord,” as arranged by composer Florence Price.
When the ovation ended, my father suggested that we see if we could get Ms. Anderson’s autograph. Clearly, others had the same idea; the wings on stage left were crowded, yet orderly.
I waited my turn. When I arrived at the table where she was seated, her manager suddenly announced, “Ms. Anderson will sign no more autographs tonight.” She looked straight at me and said, “No! I will sign many more.”
When she reached across the table to get my program, the sleeve of her fur coat brushed my left cheek. After 77 years, I still feel that fur on my face! Who knows how it does?
I believe Anderson’s impact on racial equality was not through public protest, but through an undiscouraged demonstration of quiet dignity in the face of discrimination.
She had a self-understanding of her own worth as a human being and as a child of God.
That view can be attributed both to the strong family in which she was raised and to the Union Baptist Church of Philadelphia that early sensed her unique gift, supporting and encouraging her in her musical preparation.
Who she was became her testimony to the worth of individuals. It guided her in her steps along the way.
Once, after being accepted for voice training by a noted instructor, she rejected the arrangement when she learned it was to be paid by being her teacher’s household servant and house cleaner.
Singing at the Lincoln Memorial took place after she was prevented from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution. This rejection had been preceded by unprecedented acclaim throughout Europe for her concerts there.
In a rare public statement she said, “I’m shocked beyond words to be barred from the capital of my own country after having appeared in almost every other capital in the world.”
Speaking of Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in arranging the concert at the Lincoln Memorial, she said further, “She seemed to me to be one who really comprehended the true meaning of democracy.”
What more powerful affirmation of her belief in America’s true values could she have made than to stand resolute and regal before the Easter throng and sing of her country?
When nearing retirement and living in Minneapolis, I visited a traveling exhibition assembled by the Smithsonian for its 150th anniversary. Moving through it, I encountered – displayed in a glass case – Marian Anderson’s fur coat.
I stood there for a while, thinking, then moved on. But turning back for a last look, I saw a little Black boy, about five years old, standing in front of the coat looking at it.
I stepped over to him and said, “That’s a pretty coat, isn’t it?” To which the boy replied, “Yes, it is.”
I wondered at the time how much that boy would come to know about Marian Anderson, about her remarkable achievement, and about the repeated rejection she had experienced because her skin was dark.
I wondered if he knew of the blood shed by many in the years since that Washington concert in hopes that he could grow up with the common freedoms I had.
And, out of necessity, I thought of the racist hostility he would most certainly experience in the years that would follow his visit to the museum.
As I look back in these latter years, a question has surfaced: Did Marian Anderson close her Bakersfield recital with that spiritual to provide a musical balance or because it was her personal testimony — “My soul’s been anchored in the Lord?”
Retired pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Edmondson previously served the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, California. He is an alumnus of Berkeley School of Theology and Regents Park College, Oxford University. Edmondson was a founding member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and in retirement taught in the College of Theology at Central Philippine University. He lives in Oakland, California.