The Power of a Voice: “Hear Marian Anderson Sing!” (Danica Harootian)

Overview: This lesson centers specifically on the famous African-American opera singer, Marian Anderson. Prejudice against her and events in her career are evidence to the institutionalized racism in America that continued into the greater ‘60s. Her reactionary concert at the Lincoln Memorial and the significance of her performance of the song, “America!” contribute to her legacy as an African-American female singer and figure. The examination of her struggle, her identity and those who supported her reveals greater notions of the power system that existed in America.

Framework: First, students will read a primary source newspaper article about Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial to learn background information about Anderson. In class, the following lesson will ask students to examine their personal knowledge and affiliation with the song “America!” or “My Country, Tis of Thee!” After reflecting on what the lyrics mean to each student as a young person in an American history class, students will witness a short part of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Students will use this information to discuss the perceived constructions and identities of Marian Anderson, and integrate the information into a coherent understanding of the Lincoln Memorial concert as an event. As students reflect upon the music and learn about Anderson’s life, students will learn how external powers and institutionalized racism affect an individual. Particularly, students will attempt to understand how Anderson’s identity as an African-American woman was considered a justified reason for others to exert power over her career.

Essential Understanding: Students understand that an individual like Marian Anderson, though an individual with immense fame and status, is submitted to external powers of any motive due to her identity as an African-American woman.

Essential Questions:
1. Who is Marian Anderson?
2. Why did she perform at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939?
3. How did Anderson’s rejection to perform at Constitution Hall influence support for an individual or help a movement gain momentum?
4. How was Marian Anderson’s life and career controlled by other individuals or groups?
5. What legacy does Marian Anderson hold as a singer and a figure?

Introduction: Marian Anderson was a famous contralto, raised in Philadelphia. She performed at many reputable venues internationally and in the US, including at Carnegie Hall in 1935. While living in Europe in the ‘20s and ‘30s, she performed in many productions while participation of a black artist in opera was still banned in the United States. Her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera wasn’t until 1955, and she was the first African-American artist cast in a singing role at the Metropolitan Opera Company. In these years of her career, she was one of the top five earners in the music business.

When Anderson’s manager inquired about a performance at Constitution Hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution reiterated that the venue allowed black people in the audience, but no black singers were allowed to perform. She performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 on Easter Sunday. The concert was federally-sponsored and brought in an audience of 75,000. The idea for this concert location came from Anderson’s manager and the Secretary of the Interior. The Secretary of the Interior officially invited Marian Anderson to sing, and he gave the introduction to her concert. This concert was the first event at this location that directly connected the civil-rights struggle with President Lincoln’s role in emancipation. When Anderson sang “America!” at the Lincoln Memorial concert, she changed the lyrics “Of thee I sing,” to “Of thee we sing.” She never revealed if this was by choice or accident. She closed her concert set with the spiritual, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

The refusal by the DAR for Anderson to sing garnered attention and support for her. Namely, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for her and even quit the DAR. The NAACP, the American Federation of Teachers, and various local school boards attempted to change the situation with lawyers and through their own efforts for school desegregation. Then, the Citizens Committee for Protesting the Exclusion of Marian Anderson and the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) were formed. Though the latter group was small in size and mostly comprised of local members in Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C. area, they were vocal. Their main slogan and plea is as follows: “Defend our democratic right to hear Marian Anderson sing!” (126).1 After her concert at the Lincoln Memorial, they sent demands to the DAR. They requested that Constitution Hall be open to African-American artists, that no reputable organization be denied performance based on race, and for Marian Anderson to be specifically accommodated to perform with mutual cooperation between the two parties.

Anderson didn’t like to draw attention to herself, but she still held strong feelings about racial discrimination in her life and on the greater scale. She liked to think of herself as a role model, but didn’t like to call herself an activist. She maintained a deep connection to the struggle for civil and human rights, though she didn’t always align herself with others’ perceptions of her. By the time Anderson was ready to retire, she held her farewell concert at Constitution Hall in 1964. Often talked about in terms of her race and her role as the African-American woman with key “firsts” in the musical sphere, it is also important to reify her musical qualifications apart from race. Specific to the time period, though, she was still “hemmed in by social conventions of gender and race…[and] perceived as a talented female star who represented her race in cultural, not political, terms” (107).2 After Anderson was refused by the DAR, the NAACP began a publicity campaign for her cause. Her fame from this controversy and her identity an African-American singer affiliated with Civil Rights led to her involvement in the 1963 March on Washington. She sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” From World War II to her death in 1993, “she retained her status as a powerful symbol of racial pride and democratic promise. While never close to the center of the struggle, she resided on the margin of the civil rights movement as a unique historical figure” (189).3 She also helped pave the way for younger aspiring black artists and helped with gifts through the Marian Anderson Scholarship Fund.

“75,000 Hear Miss Anderson At Washington” Newspaper Article

“Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial” Newsreel Story (YouTube)

“The Soul of Marian Anderson” by Terry Teachout

Day 1:
In preparation for this lesson, write the lyrics of “My Country, Tis of Thee!” on the board, but cover them up before students arrive (perhaps with a pull-down screen or paper). Additionally, have the YouTube video of Marian Anderson’s performance loaded on you computer set-up available.

For homework, students should have read the primary source, a newspaper article from the Chicago Defender about Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Tell the students to pair up with a partner and first discuss candidly if they had heard of Anderson before reading the homework. Next, they should come up with three understandings from the article with their partners. Give the students five to ten minutes for their discussion, and then ask some groups to share their understandings.

Next, speak to the class as a whole and ask for answers by raised hands. Ask the students to raise their hands if they ever learned to sing “My Country, Tis of Thee!” in school. Have two to three students who raised their hands explain when, where, and why they learned the song. Next, give the class about ten minutes to write down a blank page as many lyrics of the song that they can remember. Make sure to emphasize that if a student has never heard of the song or cannot remember any of the words, not to worry. After you give the class time to write the lyrics, casually inquire how easy or difficult this task was. Ask the students what this song means to them.

Watch the YouTube video of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial concert of 1939. After it is finished and without discussion, reveal the correct song lyrics on the board. Prepare to watch the video a second time, and instruct the students to, this time, follow along as they watch Anderson sing. Let students realize which lyrical change Anderson made in her performance, and end class discussing and inferring why she changed “I” to “we.”

Assign the secondary source, “The Soul of Marian Anderson” by Terry Teachout for homework.

Day 2:
Like the previous class, begin this lesson by letting students discuss the assigned reading in pairs. What is something new that they learned about Anderson and her performance based on the reading?

Give a short lecture on Anderson’s life based on the information in this teaching module’s Introduction section. Select what you would like to include or exclude, and seek the cited book source for more information.

Take a step back and discuss the video from the previous day in observational terms. Let students share their reactions to the short video. Next, ask students what the homework revealed to them about Anderson’s performance in a greater context?

This should be a collective discussion and will vary in terms of involvement and student contribution. Discussion questions may include the following:

-How much of Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert was calculated by individuals and parties other than herself?
-How was Marian Anderson’s life and career controlled by other individuals or groups?
-What legacy does Marian Anderson hold as a singer and a figure?
-How much of this legacy is her own, and how much of it is due to others’ power over her image and influence?

Though this lesson is quite specific to one individual, it is telling of power systems of an example of how people can help make a change. Those people may be like those in small organizations such as the Marian Anderson Citizens’ Committee, or they can be powerful figures like the Secretary of the Interior. This lesson can lead into another example of one individual, perhaps Martin Luther King and his event at the Lincoln Memorial, the March on Washington of 1963. In order to lead into this other major event at the same location, assign a small homework assignment to search online and find when and why Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial a second time.

Additional Sources:
Arsenault, Raymond. The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, n.d.

Cheatham, Wallace McClain. 1999. “African-American Women Singers at the Metropolitan Opera Before Leontyne Price.” The Journal of Negro History 84 no 2:167-181. EBSCOhost.

Vriend-Robinette, Sharon R. 2010. “My Lord, What a Morning!: A Representation of Marian Anderson In an Intercultural, Cold War Context.” Interdisciplinary Humanities: Nature and Humanities 27, no. 1:57-69. EBSCOhost.

1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
2. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
3. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
4. Students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken other directions.

1Arsenault, Raymond. The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, n.d. (Book)
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.

One thought on “The Power of a Voice: “Hear Marian Anderson Sing!” (Danica Harootian)

  1. It is a tremendous honor to see my research recognized as an additional source of reference for this powerful lesson about social justice in America.

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