Howard University had invited Marian Anderson, the greatest contralto of her time, to sing in Washington, D.C., in 1939. The black opera singer had traveled through Europe performing for heads of state and had entertained the Roosevelts at the White House.
When concert organizers tried to rent the biggest hall in the city, in a building owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the group refused. Seven years before, it had adopted a rule barring African-Americans from performing in its hall.
People were outraged at the rule. Eleanor Roosevelt had often worked for change from inside an organization, but this issue had become too public.
“I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist,” she wrote to the group’s president. “You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”
A Gallup Poll showed overwhelming support for her position, but she wasn’t finished. Working with the interior secretary, she arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which she did, singing “God Bless America” before 75,000 people.
Roosevelt didn’t hear the concert. She did the right thing again, staying away to give Anderson the spotlight
.— Adapted from Robin Gerber, Penguin. the Eleanor Roosevelt Way,