The nation’s first civil rights monument turns 75

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The first civil rights monument in the United States is having its diamond jubilee. The monument isn’t a temple, obelisk or sculpture. It’s a mural installed in the spring of 1942 at the entrance to the Interior Department’s basement cafeteria. The artwork, “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” portrays the racially integrated audience at the Lincoln Memorial concert by the great African American singer Marian Anderson. In part, the mural reflects the racial attitudes of the era; it also conveys a radical message about civil rights that deserves a gala celebration to mark this, its 75th anniversary.

The Lincoln Memorial concert took place on April 9, 1939, Easter Sunday, two months after the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to allow Anderson to sing in its venue, Constitution Hall. An audience of 75,000 gathered on the Mall, and millions more listened on the radio.

Soon afterward, national delegates of the DAR held a convention in Washington. When black activists considered picketing the event, establishment figures pressed them to reconsider. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to NAACP leader Walter White, the driving force behind the Lincoln Memorial concert, urging him “to use your influence against this and leave well enough alone.” The activists agreed to back down.




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