Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Sound of Freedom

19. The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault

It was, I think, fitting that I finished reading this book, by the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, on the very day that John Hope Franklin, founder of the discipline of African-American history and maker of history himself, died. (Indeed, I picked up the book and I read of his memories of hearing this concert broadcast on the radio.)

I thought that I knew this story. Marian Anderson's management wanted to book her into Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., the Daughters of the American Revolution said "no" because of her race, Mrs. Roosevelt quit the DAR and Miss Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial. All that's true. But, as with most simple stories, this one is a great deal more complex, and more interesting.

Why Miss Anderson? What was it about her that made her the first African-American woman to find an honored place in the world of classical music, and draw audiences of black and white alike? More than merely her gorgeous voice and excellent musicianship, it was the choices she made of repertoire and of management that led her there. She drew from her racial heritage, but did not allow herself to be typed as a "race" singer. At home in the U.S., her manager, the famed Sol Hurok, carefully publicized her as a singer who had conquered Europe but remained an unspoiled homebody. Arsenault traces for us the trajectory of her career and shows how she achieved a position and a reputation without which this fight would have been unlikely to have occurred, much less succeeded.

How did this story become so big? Following the DAR's initial refusal of the use of Constitution Hall, the director of the music series for which Miss Anderson was to perform sought, and received, not only favorable newspaper coverage, but the assistance of the NAACP in attempting a challenge to the DAR. The politics, the manoeuvering, the deft handling of a variety of interests by people like the NAACP's Walter White make for fascinating and illuminating reading. Committees were formed, alliances made, alternatives sought. A request to use a public school auditorium was turned down, again due to policies of racial segregation.

Timing, of course, is all. And friends. When Miss Anderson had been invited to sing at the White House some months earlier, she and Eleanor Roosevelt had become friends. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior (the Department with jurisdiction over the Lincoln Memorial) was a friend of Walter White's. When someone (it's not certain who) suggested that the Memorial be the venue for the concert, well, the rest is, indeed, history.

Since that time, we have become used to this space being used for great public events. Here the March on Washington took place. Here were protests against the Vietnam war. But this was the first time such a crowd had gathered there, in what Secretary Ickes called "this great auditorium under the sky [where] all of us are free." So it was that on Easter Sunday, 1939, a thrilled and respectful crowd of 75,000 heard Marian Anderson sing. It was a short concert, less than an hour, but its impact was great. Said Mary McLeod Bethune: It cannot be described in words. There is no way. History may and will record it, but it will never be able to tell what happened in the hearts of the thousands who stood and listened yesterday afternoon. Something happened in all of our hearts. I came away almost walking on air. We are on the right track--we must go forward. The reverence and concentration of the throngs . . . told a story of hope for tomorrow--a story of triumph--a story of pulling together--a story of splendor and real democracy. When I read those words, quoted by Mr. Arsenault, I could not help but think how accurately they reflected my feelings as I left Grant Park on Election Night, 2008.

The story does not end that day. Miss Anderson's growing stature in the musical world (finally singing at the Met) and participation in the civil rights struggle, the DAR's continued refusal to acknowledge the racial motivation in their refusal of the Hall, provide the coda.

Raymond Arsenault has written a moving, compelling and informative account of how this event came to be, how Miss Anderson came to be the right woman at the right time, and in the process has given me new insight into this moment in the history of American politics of race.

The Marian Anderson Historical Society

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