Marian Anderson Brings Spirituals to the National Stage

Nearly four score after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that released African-Americans from bondage, Marian Anderson utilized the genre morphed from slavery to stand against discrimination midway through the Jim Crow era and unintentionally serve as a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement in the decades to follow.


A Brief History of Negro Spirituals

Spirituals came to the forefront following the Great Awakening when the Christian values of newly-converted African-Americans and the cries of an enslaved people intertwined. While the religion was force-fed by their captors, African-Americans interpreted the teachings of the Bible to their personal experiences with enslavement and liberation as a form of resistance. This resistance was particularly seen in the establisment (or lack thereof) of the invisible church–where “slaves worshipped in defiance of laws that prohibited their assembly without White supervision” (Burnim 91) Elements such as call-and-response and double entrendes characterize the genre as the music invited to lament and hope for a brighter future together as stories of rewarding those who were both patient & faithful were recurring themes in the Bible.

A Brief History of Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson was born in Philadephila, Pennsylvania on February 27, 1897 to a heavily Christian family. Her musical beginnings took place in her church choir at the young age of 6 and being a self-taught pianist by age 8. With some monetary contributions from her church members, Anderson was able to receive private training from Giuseppe Boghetti and toured four continents over a four-decade long career. She made history in 1955 as the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1965, Anderson retired and focused on her philanthropic interests as a UN ambassador. At the time of her death in 1993, Anderson’s accolades includes a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a UN Peace Prize awardee, amongst many others.

Importance of Lincoln Memorial Performance

Though Anderson was born a few decades after the end of slavery, Negro spirituals still served a purpose. The writer arrangement and commercialization of Negro Spirituals began in the Reconstruction period with artists such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers touring in the Northeast. Anderson paid homage to her enslaved predecessors as well as her Christian upbringing by including spirituals at the end of her performances. Prior to her career-defining performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, she was a well-renowned artist who had toured South America, Europe and the US. However, during these performances, she was still subjected to the cruelty of Jim Crow–she was unable to find lodging or enter venues through hidden locations. In the concert of interest, the Daughters of the American Revolution prohibited Anderson to perform at their hall–a move that was challenged by Walter White of the NAACP with backing from sitting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who helped made arrangements for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson began her performance with the patriotic “My Country Tis’ of Thee” (see above) but, as was common for her other performances, included the spirituals “Gospel Train,” “Trampin”, “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” 75,000 saw the performance in person along with millions at home as the performance nationally broadcasted on radio stations. 

This was the first but certainly not the last time Anderson made an impression on presidential company. Anderson performed at the inaugurations for President Eisenhower in 1957 and for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Additionally, she returned to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with a rendition of “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands.” But as for the performance who catapulted her American fame, the symbolism behind her location below a hovering Abraham Lincoln and her use of the term “we” in her rendition of her opening song was not lost. Anderson sung not only for herself–but those who came before her, those standing alongside her, as well as those who will come after her.


Bond, Z. (2020, June 03). Marian Anderson (1897-1993) •. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from

Burnim, M. V., & Maultsby, P. K. (2015). African American Music: An introduction. New York u.a.: Routledge.

Stamberg, S. (2014, April 09). Denied a stage, she sang for a nation. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from

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