Easter Sunday, 1939
Art’s ability to entertain is readily acknowledged, but its motivational and inspirational qualities aren’t always recognized. Those aspects are celebrated in award-winning author and historian Raymond Arsenault’s outstanding new book The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America.
This volume shows how reaction and response to one concert, Anderson’s historic Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Memorial 70 years ago, energized the movement against racism and injustice. Long before that, Anderson had spent the professional equivalent of a lifetime breaking barriers and shattering stereotypes. Though not the first black vocalist operating in the classical/operatic arena, Anderson’s thundering, spectacular contralto won praise from Europe’s toughest critics and finest conductors. Arsenault shows how she took techniques mastered in the black church to a different musical setting, proving equally masterful with opera and spirituals.
But Anderson’s amazing 1939 concert is Arsenault’s primary focus here. The Daughters of the American Revolution was then among the nation’s foremost political and social organizations and its leaders had previously opposed Anderson’s appearance at Constitution Hall because she was black. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the group in protest and convinced Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to let Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson’s singing not only solidified her reputation, it electrified the 75,000 in attendance, and garnered the good will of people around the world. Arsenault equates this with subsequent milestones like Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball and Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus.
Anderson achieved other firsts, like breaking the Metropolitan Opera’s color bar in the 1950s. Still, for the generations who aren’t well acquainted with her career, The Sound of Freedom provides critical perspective on her most significant achievement.
Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.