On Easter Sunday 1939, African American opera singer Marian Anderson provided what might be called a warm-up act for the civil rights era with her famous performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Anderson, already an acclaimed singer at that point in her career, had been denied the opportunity to perform at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her race. The subsequent news reports created a firestorm of backlash against the D.A.R., prompting first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to withdraw her membership from the organizing.
Instead, with planning help from the first lady, Anderson's concert was relocated to a much more memorable venue, and she performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a crowd of 75,000 and millions more listening at home on the radio.
Introducing her to the stage, then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes said, "Genius draws no color lines, and so it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice in tribute to the noble Lincoln, whom mankind will ever honor."
After her performance, Anderson thanked the crowd, saying, “I am overwhelmed. I can’t tell you what you have done for me today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart again and again.”
Her pioneering civil rights work did not end on that day. She went on to become the first African American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, and returned to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to sing again at the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.