Before there was Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, there was Marian Anderson. Anderson was a world-renowned contralto who was not permitted to sing in front of an integrated audience at Washington, D.C.’s Constitutional Hall in 1939.
Eleanor Roosevelt, all-time champion of awesomeness in the First Lady department, with the help of her husband what’s-his-name (just kidding!),
FDR, arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A crowd of 75,000 people gathered to listen to her sing in person, and millions more listened on the radio.
This was one of the first actions that helped to cement the Lincoln Memorial (which was completed in 1922) as a key site of protesting racial inequality in the United States. One thing that strikes me as a historian interested in memory practices and Lincoln is the implication that going to the Lincoln Memorial is like going to a shrine to ask for the intercession of the god of American equality. It’s both a symbolic and a spiritual gesture.
And, through the magic of YouTube, you can listen to Marian Anderson sing: