Here Is How Classical Music Advanced The Civil Rights Movement

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Remembering Marian Anderson’s landmark Met performance, 60 years later

When Marian Anderson took the stage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on this day in 1955,TIME wrote, “there were more Negroes in the audience than anyone had ever seen at the Met.” The reason was clear:

In Box No. 35 of the Golden Horseshoe, the place usually reserved for visiting statesmen and royalty, sat a small, aged lady who had once been a washerwoman in Philadelphia. Her name was Anna Anderson. As a girl, her daughter dreamed of singing in this great gilt and plush house. Now, at 52, Contralto Marian Anderson was realizing the dream. The first Negro singer to appear at the Metropolitan, she was making her debut in Verdi’sUn Ballo in Maschera.

There’s a lot to cringe at in TIME’s coverage of Anderson in the middle of the 20th century—not only the use of that then-common, now-defunct term “Negro,” but also her characterization as “dusky” and a perhaps well-meaning but tone-deaf statement that her achievement, “as with every Negro … is inseparable from the general achievement of her people.” That’s a lot of weight to hang on any person’s shoulders.

Yet the lily-white media was not wrong that her accomplishments carried great significance. Even before her landmark performance as the first black person to sing at the Met, she had earned herself a prominent place in the civil rights movement after a brush with the Daughters of the American Revolution. When her manager tried to book a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1939, the D.A.R. (the group that still owns and operates the venue) said there was no availability. As TIME reported, “while the Daughters continued to preserve a thin-lipped silence, Daughter Eleanor Roosevelt announced in her syndicated Scripps-Howard column that she was resigning from the D.A.R. in protest.”

As a counter-move, Anderson instead gave a concert at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, waiving her fee of $1,750 and performing for an audience of 75,000. The photo of the singer with Lincoln looming over her shoulder became iconic.

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