Marian Anderson’s Civil Rights Legacy Shapes Voice of Freedom on PBS

Internationally renowned African-American contralto MARIAN ANDERSON (1897-1993) sang to an audience of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Easter Sunday 1939. Photo courtesy World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

Internationally renowned African-American contralto MARIAN ANDERSON (1897-1993) sang to a standing audience of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Easter Sunday 1939. Photo courtesy World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

“She can sing from the top of the Washington Monument if she wants to.”–President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Quite remarkably, in 1939, President Rosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt raised their voices in support of singer Marian Anderson, repudiating the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) when they barred the African-American singer from performing at an Easter Sunday benefit concert at D.C.’s Constitution Hall.

Concert organizer Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, countered with a plan to hold the concert outdoors instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. What better way to celebrate Howard University, the concert’s benefactor, and provide black Americans with the chance to re-dedicate the Memorial after having been marginalized during its initial dedication in 1922.

Young contralto Marian Anderson’s performances defied convention and dodged danger in Jim Crow America. Photo courtesy Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Voice of Freedom, the latest film to debut in GBH Boston’s AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series, revisits the racial, cultural and political mindset that preceded that landmark concert on Easter Sunday 1939, with a look back at the remarkable career of the concert’s stellar attraction: African-American contralto Marian Anderson.  Written, produced and directed by veteran filmmaker Rob Rapley and narrated by Renée Elise Goldsberry, Voice of Freedom premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, February 15, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.

Although Voice of Freedom fails to delve deeply into Marian Anderson’s personal life and psyche, the film is a welcome exploration of her public persona and the brutal landscape of racism as it impacted African-American performers like Ms. Anderson during the first half of the 20th century.  Voice of Freedom is especially noteworthy because it focuses on a black female performer whose career was impeded by systemic racism and sexism.

Through an extensive, smartly curated compilation of period film footage, photos, newspaper clippings and vintage audio recordings of Marian Anderson and her mentors, filmmaker Rob Rapley transports Ms. Anderson from her earliest days as a chorister at Philadelphia’s Union Baptist Church and solo performer at small town college and church venues with African-American constituencies.  Slammed doors and threats of physical violence were commonplace as she attempted to advance her music training and grow her audience in segregated, Jim Crow America.

A pivotal, critically disappointing Town Hall concert in New York City triggered Anderson’s departure to the U.K. and Europe in 1927.  As with many notable African-American performers at the time, she was soon welcomed by large appreciative, less overtly racist audiences.

Marian Anderson, with her manager Sol Hurok (left)  and Metropolitan Opera rep Rudolf Bing (right), signs a contract to appear at the Met in 1955. Photo courtesy CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

While abroad, she polished her vocal and language skills; signed with an influential manager, Sol Hurok; set off on an extensive well-received tour of Europe and Scandinavia; and garnered a career-defining accolade from beloved Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who hailed her voice as one that “one is privileged to hear only once in 100 years.”  With Toscanini’s “Voice of the Century” imprimatur forever imprinted on her work, Marian Anderson headed home to the States, wealthy and a star, as the Nazis began blazing their treacherous trail throughout Europe.

With articulate insights threaded throughout from scholars, archivists and writers, all specialists in their fields and all women, Voice of Freedom documents the racist and sexist career obstacles encountered by Marian Anderson, leading up to her uneasy mid-20th century relationship with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement… specifically the NAACP, its youthful cohort and visionaries like Walter White and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whether outlier or icon, Marian Anderson would not bend to boycotts or sit comfortably with efforts to politicize her performances.  Her voice was her calling card and her advocacy came through her commitment to her concerts, wherever she decided they would be, and the racist roadblocks she managed to obliterate. In 1955, Marian Anderson went on to break through one more extraordinary barrier:  At age 58, she became the first African American to star in an opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Millions of radio listeners tuned in to hear Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Photo courtesy Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo.

Millions of radio listeners tuned in to hear Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Photo courtesy Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo.

I challenge anyone to reach the end of this film and not tear up during the 1939 clip of Ms. Anderson’s climatic performance of “America” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Given the recent desecration of the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol and the heightened racist climate in the U.S., Marian Anderson’s powerful 1939 performance and the back story leading up to it are more timely than ever. They are deftly revisited in AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Voice of Freedom, which has been wisely programmed to debut during Black History Month on President’s Day 2021.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Voice of Freedom premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, February 15, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience  and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability. –Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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