First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Contralto Marian Anderson: Fighters for Civil Rights


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First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and contralto Marian Anderson both did a lot for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1939, Mrs. Roosevelt showed up for a meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama, with an African-American friend and educator named Mary McLeod Bethune; however, the auditorium in which the meeting was held had segregated seating: blacks on one side and whites on the other. Told that she would be breaking the law if she sat with Mrs. Bethune, Mrs. Roosevelt sat on a chair placed in the aisle that separated whites and blacks. A few weeks later, controversy arose when Ms. Anderson, an African-American, was not allowed to sit in Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. Constitution Hall was part of the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution; this organization had decreed that no black artists would be allowed to perform there. Mrs. Roosevelt was a member of the D.A.R., but she resigned her membership. She wrote in a letter to D.A.R. President General Mrs. Henry M. Robert, Jr., “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me that your organization has failed.” She also wrote about quitting the D.A.R. in her widely distributed newspaper column, thus making it a national issue. Ms. Anderson ended up performing a free concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday: 9 April 1939. A few years later, on 7 January 1943, Ms. Anderson sang a concert in Constitution Hall in front of the hall’s first-ever non-segregated audience. She had been invited to sing there by the D.A.R. She sang there again in a farewell tour before retiring. Asked if she had forgiven the D.A.R., she replied, “Ages and ages ago. You lose a lot of time hating people.”

For Further Information: Russell Freedman, The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (New York: Clarion Books, 2004), pp. 47, 54-57, 72, 74, 86.

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