- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

More than 2,000 people gathered Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial for a concert honoring the 70th anniversary of Marian Anderson's historic performance there in 1939.

Because of the color of her skin, Anderson was denied the opportunity to perform at nearby Constitution Hall and local high school. So, instead, the opera singer sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in April 1939 to a 75,000-person crowd of blacks and whites.

In the Sunday afternoon sunshine, opera star Denyce Graves performed three of the same songs Anderson sang 70 years ago: “O, Mio Fernando,” “Ave Maria” and “America,” better known by its opening line “My country, 'tis of thee.”

Wearing one of Anderson's dresses, Miss Graves called her predecessor “one of my greatest heroes.”

“It is the honor of my life and my career to be celebrating this day of freedom with you,” the black singer told the audience.

She joked that when she looked over Anderson's performance list and saw “O, Mio Fernando,” she thought “my God, she sang that song; that's really hard.”

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell recited excerpts from President Lincoln's second inaugural address. Afterward, he remarked on Lincoln's famous call to heal the nation's wounds after the Civil War, “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” telling the audience to aspire to those words.

The Chicago Children's Choir, women's a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and the U.S. Marine Band also performed at the concert.

Introducing a number called “Would You Harbor Me,” a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock said the song was “written because this country has been a harborer to so many, but at the same time it has rejected so many.”

Those words highlight Anderson's story. She grew up in poverty in South Philadelphia, but became famous in the 1930s, performing for royalty and in major concert halls in Europe, New York and Philadelphia.

When her manager tried to book Anderson at Constitution Hall, the largest venue in segregated Washington at the time, she was rejected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the hall and prohibited blacks from performing there. The district's school board also turned her away from singing at a school's auditorium.

“To me, it's just very dramatic,” said Josephine Pesaresi, 75, the daughter of Justice Hugo Black, who attended the 1939 event. “People are younger, they don't realize what huge things have happened and how far we have come. It makes me weep, I'm so happy.”

Sunday was a time to reflect “where we were then, where we are now and how far we have to go,” said Raymond Arsenault, who has written a book on Anderson's concert and has consulted with the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. The commission and the National Park Service are sponsoring the event.

Mr. Arsenault said the 1939 event wasn't just a concert. “It was this sort of crack in the mold; it just showed people this alternative vision of what America might be like if it lived up to its goals of liberty.”

Seventieth anniversaries ceremonies aren't that common, but the Bicentennial Commission decided to hold the concert this year because it also coincided with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birthday. Organizers view Anderson's concert as a major step in the advancement of civil rights that Lincoln helped inspire.

After the hourlong performance, about 200 people were sworn in as U.S. citizens, symbolizing the rights all Americans are guaranteed.

Before the swearing in, Mr. Powell talked about his parents' immigration to the United States from Jamaica.

“It wasn't a perfect place, as we have witnessed here with this celebration,” he said. “But it was a place that just kept getting better and better and better.”

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