Rep. Brian Stewart Weekly Column: A Easter Story

The Easter Holiday is upon us. Families throughout Northern Illinois are taking children on Easter egg hunts as adults are wrapping up their Lenten commitments. Beautiful dresses and handsome suits will fill church aisles this Sunday, as countless hams roast slowly in the oven for family dinners. Easter is a time of hope, rebirth, and redemption.

Easter has typically been the milder holiday, sandwiched as it is between New Year’s and Independence Day, both raucous affairs in their own right. However, like Christmas, Easter did have a movie named after it, Easter Parade. An exchange between the hero, Don, and the heroine, Hannah, is particularly appropriate. When talking about Don’s inviting her to perform with him, Hannah says, “No, I mean it. You're the most wonderful dancer I've ever seen. You could get anyone to dance with you. You could get the very best.” Don replies, “I don't want the very best. I want you.” When you think about it, Don’s words capture just what Easter is all about.

Easter itself celebrates the most important event in the Christian religion. I started searching for other notable historical events that also happened on Easter Sunday and speak to the hope and opportunity it offers. I found the story of American contralto Marian Anderson.

Anderson was born on February 27th, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was the oldest of three girls. She joined the choir at Union Baptist Church when she was only six years old, earning the nickname “Baby Contralto.” Two years later, her father bought her a piano. She so impressed her family and church choir, they raised $500 to pay for professional voice training.

Anderson’s training paid off. She won a contest conducted by the New York Philharmonic Society and sang at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City. She performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928, and later won the Julius Rosenwald scholarship which provided her the opportunity to perform in a musical tour through Europe.

By the 1930’s, Anderson and her amazing voice was famous throughout the Western world. She performed at the White House for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the first African American to receive the honor. Legendary musician and conductor Arturo Toscanini told Anderson, “A voice like yours is heard only once in a hundred years.” In 1955 she became the first African American member of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

She sang our National Anthem for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Inauguration in 1957, and at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1961. In 1957 she was named Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She became an official delegate and goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations in 1958. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 the same year she sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. These are only some of her achievements, and perhaps her greatest moment was the concert she gave on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, was organizing a performance in Washington D.C. The chosen venue was Constitution Hall, the largest concert hall in our nation’s capital to this day. The hall was built in 1929 by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to house the organization’s annual convention.

The DAR told Anderson and her manager that there were no dates available for her to perform in their facility. Reality was that the DAR had a policy that the hall only be available for white performers. In many ways, our country was still recovering from the horrors of the Civil War. At that time segregation was prevalent, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was scarcely ten years old.

News of the rejection leaked and the public uproar including Mrs. Roosevelt resulted in the first concert to be performed at the Lincoln Memorial. Approximately 75,000 flooded the mall and millions more listened to the performance on the radio. Anderson closed her concert saying, “I am overwhelmed. I can’t tell you what you have done for me today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart again and again.”

Let’s fulfill the spirit of this Easter season. Let’s choose to offer hope and opportunity to those around us. Let’s remember how far we have come, and keep working for a better future. Happy Easter!

If you have any additional thoughts or ideas, you can reach me or Sally at 815-232-0774, or visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com and use the form to send me an e-mail.

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