Marian Anderson did not want to become a political symbol. She just wanted to be a singer.
She ended up being both and frankly, it was partly her own fault.
She became such an extraordinary singer that it was impossible for her not to slam into the barricades that too much of America maintained against black folks of all colors and professions in the first half of the 20th century.
Once she slammed into them, she helped break more than a few of them down, a journey that’s chronicled beautifully in Marian Anderson: Voice of Freedom, a two-hour documentary premiering Monday at 9 p.m. ET in the PBS American Experience series.
Written and directed by Rob Rapley, with narration by Renee Elise Goldsberry, Voice Of Freedom nominally features Anderson’s famous performance on Easter Sunday 1939 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Anderson was by that time the highest paid singer in the world, an icon in Europe who had returned to her native America and wanted to do a command performance in the Nation’s Capitol.
The only suitable venue in Washington at the time, a place acoustically appropriate for music and large enough to hold the expected crowd, was Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
Anderson’s representatives asked if they could lease the Hall for a night and were told no, sorry, the DAR made no exceptions to its policy of only allowing white artists on its stage.
When the refusal reached Walter White, head of the NAACP and a long-time supporter of Anderson, he worked for weeks to stoke public outrage. He finally achieved it when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt announced that she was resigning from the DAR in protest.
That put the wheels in motion for a “Take that!” counter-concert, whose perfect location was the steps of the monument to the author of the Emancipation Proclamation.
It drew 75,000 people, an extraordinary turnout, and was broadcast live across the country on radio networks.
Voice of Freedom only has time for a small excerpt of the music, but that’s enough. Seeing Anderson close her eyes and start with “America (My Country ’Tis of Thee)” had to send chills down several million spines.
Not by accident did The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 24 years later, deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech from the precise spot where Anderson had sung, “Let freedom ring.” King had heard that 1939 concert himself, at the age of 10.
Anderson, who kept singing until 1965 and lived until 1993, said she was proud of the moment and the statement it made. She also reiterated, as she had said all along, that she wanted to be most known and remembered for her music.
Voice of Freedom spends most of its time detailing how a girl who was raised along with two sisters by a determined widow became one of the signature voices of the 20th century.
She was not Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday. She was a classical singer whose repertoire also included the gospel hymns she started singing in church at the age of 6.
She had a rich contralto that sounded equally at ease with “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or a complex aria — though she didn’t make her stage opera debut until she was 58 years old, at which time she became the first black artist at the Metropolitan Opera.
Her path wasn’t always smooth. Her first concert in the big time, New York’s Town Hall, was such a critical disaster that she renounced music. She would revive her career in 1927 when she sailed to England and then Europe, where she became the musical toast of the continent.
Europe was falling under a terrible shadow in the 1930s, of course, and by 1935 Anderson was no longer permitted to sing in Germany or in other places with similar ideas about those not of Aryan birth.
One of her final European performances came in 1935 at the time of the prestigious Salzburg Festival. Rejected by the festival itself, she sang at another hall in town and her appearance spawned such tension that famed conductor Arturo Toscanini made it a point to attend the concert and praise her — underscoring the impossibility of separating her art from what she had come to represent.
She was a black American artist at a time when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was openly modeling many of his repressive measures against Jews and other “undesirables” on the Jim Crow segregation system widespread in the United States.
Anderson’s following had long crossed racial lines, but cold realities ensured that for the rest of her career she would not be able to sidestep racial politics.
After being criticized in the 1950s for refusing to boycott venues that enforced segregated audience, she gradually became more openly involved in The Movement. She sang at the 1963 March on Washington and lent her name and music to Civil Rights causes.
Anderson still might be most pleased by the suggestion in Voice of Freedom that she opened the most doors through her achievements and examples. She was an inspiration.
She even inspired an interesting footnote with Constitution Hall. After the public response in 1939, the DAR reversed its racial exclusion policy and in subsequent years, Anderson sang there a number of times.
Let freedom sing.