Watching the news last night hurt.
President Obama’s remarks on the budget agreement with the GOP included this signature line: “Like any worthwhile compromise, both sides had to make tough decisions and give ground on issues that were important to them. And I certainly did that.”
Yes, Mr. President, you certainly did. Nobody can “give ground” on important issues like you can. (See Iraq, the public option, Dawn Johnsen, . . .)
It wasn’t always like this in DC. Once upon a time, there were folks there who took on entrenched opponents with creativity and passion. And they won.
Eighty-two Seventy-two years ago today, the renowned Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That wasn’t where she originally wanted to sing, but that’s where the concert ended up.
For those unfamiliar with Anderson, D. Antoinette Handy described her reputation in the world of music like this:
[Anderson] gave her first Carnegie Hall concert in 1930 [at age 33]. That same year she gave her first European concert, in Berlin, and toured Scandinavia. In 1931 alone she gave twenty-six concerts in fifteen states. Between 1933 and 1935 she toured Europe; one of her appearances was at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini uttered the memorable line, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years” (My Lord, What a Morning, p. 158). Another exciting experience took place in the home of noted composer Jean Sibelius in Finland. After hearing Anderson sing, he uttered, “My roof is too low for you,” then canceled the previously ordered coffee and requested champagne. Sibelius also honored Anderson by dedicating his composition Solitude to her.
Because that “voice such as one hears once in a hundred years” came from the throat of an African-American, however, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her the use of their Constitution Hall in DC for a concert.
Enter Eleanor Roosevelt — a member of the DAR. When she could not convince the organization to allow Anderson to use Constitution Hall, she did two things. One was to publicly resign from the DAR over their intolerance, and the other was to find Anderson a more suitable site for her concert. She went to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and the two of them got FDR’s approval for a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Eighty two Seventy-two years ago today, after a stirring introduction by Ickes, her program opened with “America” [video at the link], then proceeded to Donizetti’s “O, Mio Fernando” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” After an intermission, she sang three spirituals: “Gospel Train,” “Trampin’,” and “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.”
Think about those songs for a minute:
- “America” — a song of the nation. Not some of it, or parts of it, but all of it.
- “Ave Maria” — a song of particular meaning and power to Catholics, bringing to mind the story of Gabriel’s visit to a young woman named Mary, telling her that despite her lowliness, she has found favor with God, and that through her son, the mighty will be brought down from their thrones.
- “Gospel Train” — here’s a Youtube of Barbara Jordan reading the lyrics and commenting on them. “The fare is cheap and all can go/The rich and poor are there/No second class aboard this train/No difference in the fare . . . Get on board, little children . . .”
Powerful stuff, and instead of being heard by a couple hundred people, 75,000 jammed the Mall and it was carried live on the radio for millions to hear.
As an encore, she sang another spiritual — “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Coming from this woman scorned by the DAR for her race gave the song particular power.
This is how you negotiate with those who seek to protect the privileges of the few at the expense of the nation. The DAR kept their precious concert hall pure that day, but Eleanor and Marian moved a nation. Perhaps Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis could remind Obama of this little story — there’s a mural commemorating the concert on the walls of the Labor Department building.
Negotiating is more than deciding to give ground. It also means taking a stand and pushing back.