Reflections of meeting a civil rights activist with a powerful voice

Black Heritage Postage Stamp honoring the famed contralto

Yesterday, I commented in my blog post how touched I was by a video of celebrities singing a refrain from the Black spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I was moved to tears when I also heard my young grandson singing refrains from the same song. This morning I continued to reflect upon that experience as I recalled hearing lyrics of spirituals flowing from soul Marian Anderson, a vocal artist of extraordinary talent who left a legacy as one of the admired and respected persons of the 20th Century. I have fondest recollections of meeting the famed contralto during my final year at Purdue University.

Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity that I was a part of at the time, had just acquired a fraternity house on campus. That accomplishment was certainly historic for the black frat but not altogether recognized and celebrated as such at the time. When I learned that Ms. Anderson was offering a recital at Purdue as part of her farewell concert tour before retiring from the concert stage, I wrote to her and asked if she would consent to on our having a reception in her honor at our house. She was staying at the Purdue Memorial Union where she had broken the color barrier with her being the first person of color to stay at the hotel facilities when she first sang on campus back in the 1950s. Our fraternity house was less than a block away, and she graciously accepted the invitation.

When I met the renowned contralto, I recall recognizing greatness in this woman of magnanimous spirit. In the presence of “greatness,” there is an aura of reverential respect; one desires to bow or genuflect or demonstrate some gesture of obeisance. I remember this almost automatic response to overwhelming greatness. Without question, meeting Marian Anderson was one of the highlights, not only of my college career but of my life.

Here is an excerpt from a blog post where I comment on my encounter with greatness and pay tribute to Ms. Anderson:

As I continue to reflect upon past events, I realized that we are presently in the period between Ash Wednesday and Resurrection Sunday. An event of profound significance occurred in 1939 during Holy Week when Marian Anderson was scheduled to perform at Constitution Hall, which was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), but because she was African American, the DAR refused to allow her to use the facility. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, resigned from the DAR in protest, and she supported the NAACP as it organized an Easter Sunday concert on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, with more than 75,000 Americans attending that integrated outdoor event. Here is a news clip of that momentous event.

Most ironically, Marian Anderson passed away over Easter weekend in 1993, and I wrote this tribute which opens with part of a line from James Weldon Johnson’s famous poem “O Black and Unknown Bards”:

“My Lord, What A Morning”—

In memory of Marian Anderson
1902-1993


“You sang a race. . .”
James Weldon Johnson

On this weekend celebrating
the Resurrection of the Savior,
when dogwood and rebud debut,
as jonquils and tulips spring forth
to remind us of new life,
we read the news of her passing.

Though her voice is hushed,
silenced by death’s icy finger,
a grace note sustains,
as memories remain
to strengthen her legacy.

The world is far richer because she lived
to weave her tapestry
of talent, grace, and humility.

I am grateful to have lived in this century,
to have heard that rare, rich contralto,
a voice that comes but once in a hundred years.

In this moment of silent reflection,
refrains from her life resonate
with the awesome beauty of Springtime:

“My Lord, What a Morning.”

Though the perilous uncertainty of our times
would menace and threaten as storm clouds,
above it all, her voice still shines,
to remind us, even now:

“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

Easter Sunday Morning
April 11, 1993


In 2005, Ms. Anderson was honored with a commemorative Black Heritage stamp featuring her portrait. Earlier that year I had read a passage from Exodus where the Children of Israel had to cross the River Jordan at flood stage. As I was reading some comments regarding our present age which has many parallels to crossing the Jordan, one of Ms. Anderson’s famous renditions of the spiritual “Deep River” came to mind: As I thought deeply about the lyrics and examined other situations, I was inspired to write this poem:

To Cross Over

Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.


Black Spiritual


To cross over the swelling Jordan is my goal.
Here I stand at the beginning of my harvest
When waters of the river overflow and crest
Above my tableland to overwhelm my soul.
Streams converge upon me as far as I can see
And flood my camp from shore to shore. The rising tide
Would hold me back and keep me from the other side,
But I prepare my heart and mind for victory.
As you sent forth the sacred ark of the covenant
Borne on the strong shoulders of the priests, reliant
Upon your command that the waters would recede,
So, shall those who trust you, never fail but succeed.
Though trials seem to hinder me on every hand,
I shall walk through this Jordan and stand on dry land.

My reflections proved to be a source of strength and encouragement, as I remembered Romans 15:4 in the Amplified Bible:

For whatever was thus written in former days was written for our instruction, that by [our steadfast and patient] endurance and the encouragement [drawn] from the Scriptures we might hold fast to and cherish hope.

Listen to a rendering of “Deep River” by the inimitable Marian Anderson:

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