Let Freedom Ring

From Washington Post:

Concert In 1983, a rising young comic superstar named Eddie Murphy appeared before a capacity crowd at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., a venue that had once been the focal point of our nation's continuing struggle to provide equal rights for all. For most of his performance, Murphy declined to mention the hall's historical import — not unreasonable considering the ribald nature of his material. But just before curtain, he offered a brief nod to history. He told his audience, “I think maybe like 30 years ago there was a woman who wanted to sing in here, a black lady that sang opera, what was her name? Mary Anderson? This place was segregated. And they couldn't sing here. She couldn't even sing in this place. Here we are, not even 50 years later. . . ” Murphy went on to cite his freedom to fondle his genitalia onstage as evidence of social progress. One could imagine Marian Anderson, the singer whom Murphy struggled to recall, rolling over in her grave — except that, of course, she was still alive at the time.

Nearly forgotten in 1983, Anderson once was one of the best-known women in the country, if not the world. In 1939, her promoters tried to parlay her European triumphs by booking a concert for her at Constitution Hall. She was turned away by the building's owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The DAR's refusal ultimately led to Anderson's outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, the event that history professor Raymond Arsenault makes the centerpiece of his new book, “The Sound of Freedom.” Before an estimated 75,000 people, Anderson performed arias, spirituals and a stirring rendition of “America.” The program was broadcast over NBC radio, and, Arsenault reports, millions more subsequently “read about it in newspapers and magazines or watched the newsreel footage in movie houses.”

The concert lasted less than an hour, but its consequences resonated for decades. Mary McLeod Bethune, a friend of Anderson's and perhaps the most influential black woman in the country at that time, noted, “Something happened in all our hearts. . . . Through the Marian Anderson protest concert we made our triumphant entry into the democratic spirit of American life.”

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