There are two African-Americans, a man and a woman, whose memory I venerate as 20th century champions of American freedom. This year of 2022 is a year of special anniversaries regarding the lives of both these heroes.
The man is Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. Two months from now, April 15, America will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie integrating Major League Baseball with his appearance as the first baseman in the starting lineup of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the late, lamented Ebbets Field. I have recounted in previous columns the impact of Jackie on American history.
The woman is Marian Anderson. Next month, on February 27, Americans of color and opera aficionados like me will celebrate her 125th birthday. When I think of Marian Anderson, my passions for the beauty of opera and the quest for racial justice in America powerfully merge. I will go so far as to say that Marian Anderson, who became the first African-American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, was the greatest contralto in American operatic history.
How powerful was the news today that as we approach the 125th birthday of Marian Anderson, Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will be retiring and President Joe Biden will be replacing him with an African-American woman justice. This is a magnificent moment of triumph for racial understanding and social justice in American history.
And it can be said, without a scintilla of hyperbole, that the foundation for this historic moment in our lifetime was established at the celebrated concert Marian Anderson gave at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. The concert itself and its background were superbly depicted by NPR in its landmark presentation, “Denied a Stage, She Sang for a Nation,” linked herein.
“Denied a Stage” powerfully describes how Marian was prohibited from performing her concert sponsored by Howard University at the racially segregated Constitution Hall by its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). At that moment, the woman I regard as the greatest of all First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt, announced her resignation from the DAR and arranged with her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walter White, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to have the aforesaid concert take place at the Lincoln Memorial.
A special moment at that concert was its opening song, “My Country, ‘tis of thee.” Marian’s concert rendition of the song is in the above link. I am an excessively oversensitive and passionate person, and I cannot listen to Marian’s patriotic and fervent rendition without dissolving in tears. Yet I suspect that on this night of the historic news of Biden’s forthcoming Supreme Court appointment, Jackie Robinson and Marian Anderson are in heaven, listening to “My country, ’tis of thee,” and are shedding tears of profound joy.
The young people of our nation are thankfully aware in increasing numbers about the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumph of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. Yet they are largely unaware of the American legacy of Marian Anderson. Without such knowledge, they cannot fully appreciate the historic significance of the forthcoming Biden appointment.
For this reason, it is absolutely imperative that the forthcoming birthday of Marian Anderson and the video of “Denied a Stage” be included as an essential component of the public school curriculum. Doubtless, its inclusion will be opposed by the movement in our state and nation to exclude the study of African-American history from our public schools.
In both our nation and state, this movement flies under the false flag of opposition to Critical Race Theory, (CRT), which is not even taught in the public schools of New Jersey or any other state. The leader of this movement is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an unabashed authoritarian racist with a Harvard Law degree. He is likely to supplant Donald Trump as the GOP presidential nominee in 2024. He is much craftier and more dangerous than Trump.
DeSantis is currently supporting anti-CRT legislation that includes a provision that would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel “discomfort” when they teach students or train employees about discrimination in the nation’s past. This provision would be applauded by the Ku Klux Klan and will doubtless get the support of the New Jersey anti-CRT mob. It would effectively bar the inclusion of the teaching in our public schools of the heroism of Jackie Robinson and Marian Anderson.
Fortunately, New Jersey is the home of Tom Kean and the Politics of Inclusion, not Ron DeSantis, the reincarnation of Gerald L. K. Smith. Our children will learn the magnificence of the heritage of Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson. And they will understand why Joe Biden’s forthcoming appointment of an African-American woman to the Supreme Court will be an event of national celebration.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.