‘You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way’

Updated

While the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas this week drew a lot of attention for its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another significant civil rights milestone had an anniversary this week as well. This past Wednesday marked the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s Easter performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Marian Anderson was already a famous singer when, in 1939, she was invited by Howard University to perform a concert. The university didn’t have the space for the expected audience, so they asked the Daughters of the American Revolution if they could use Constitution Hall for the event.

But the Daughters of the American Revolution had a white-performers-only rule at the time, instituted in response to a previous black perfomrer who’d been offended by their segregated seating policy. So Anderson’s recital was rejected.

Again, Anderson was quite popular at the time, world famous, and the outrage over her exclusion from the hall was considerable. Ultimately, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes agreed to allow Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 showed up to hear her sing.

Meanwhile, among Anderson’s fans was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who also happened to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The course of events so upset the first lady that she wrote the group’s president general a withering letter, resigning her membership:

I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign, or whether I continue to be a member of your organization.

However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obligated to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.

I realize that many people will not agree with me, but feeling as I do this seems to me the only proper procedure to follow.

After the jump, an image of a draft of the letter and a bit of video of Anderson’s performance.

'You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way'

Updated