Eighty years ago yesterday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That year, organizers at nearby Howard University who hosted her for an annual concert had tried to rent Constitution Hall, which was the largest auditorium in the area at the time. The Daughters of the American Revolution, a women’s group of descendants of Revolutionary War participants, owned the hall, and the all-white group refused to rent the facility to the concert organizers.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, and arranged for Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. An audience of 75,000 showed up, with millions more listening on the radio.
When it was first announced that Marian Anderson would not be allowed to perform at Constitution Hall, the editors of America weighed in with this “Current Comment” from the March 11, 1939, issue.
By many competent authorities Marian Anderson is judged the greatest of all living concert singers. Rising tides of protest from individuals and organizations against the action of the Daughters of the American Revolution in excluding her, on purely racial grounds, from Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., should be seriously considered by those who have the cause of true Americanism at heart.
The question at issue is not the legal matter of whether the D.A.R., as a private corporation, possess a right before the existing law to practise such an exclusion. It is much deeper, touching the consistency of such action with the actual profession of the Daughters and of the patriotic groups who naturally look to them for leadership. American democracy is based upon the conviction that each individual in our Republic is to be judged, for better or worse, as an individual and not as a member of a group. Any contrary philosophy leads logically to collectivism and to the ultimate subversion of democratic institutions. It makes no difference whether the exception is made in the name of race, or of national origins, or of religious adherence or of class affiliation. The result is inevitably the same, and in every instance flatly contradicts those principles for which the D.A.R. are supposed to stand.
The first blood shed in the American Revolution was that of a Negro; and if descent from Revolutionary heroes stands for patriotism, it should stand for those principles upon which patriotism is founded. True patriotism rests not on words and lineage but on deeds.