Thirty-six years ago Friday, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to singer Marian Anderson, the first African-American to receive Congress’ highest honor.
Although many blacks have been honored with the Gold Medal since, including Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, Anderson blazed the trail.
It wasn’t the first “first” for Anderson, who was the first African-American to perform at the White House during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and was the first black person to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Company, according to the House historical office.
But it had been a long road for Anderson. In 1939, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when DAR refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall. That action led to one of the more memorable Lincoln Memorial musical performances (sorry, Bono and The Boss) when Anderson performed at the memorial in front of 75,000 lined along the Reflecting Pool and National Mall, a stone’s throw from Constitution Hall. You can even check that out, including her rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” in glorious black and white, on YouTube.
“My heart beat like mad — it’s never beat like that before — loud and strong as though it wanted to say something. … I don’t like to use the word protesting but my reaction was, what have I done that should bring this onto my heart? … I just wanted to sing and to share,” the House historical office’s website quotes her as saying. She died in 1993.