The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights

The Voice That Challenged a NationThe Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2004. 128 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780618159765.

Marian Anderson was African-American singer of both classical and spiritual music. She was born in 1897 and grew up in Philadelphia. In her teen years, when she began to perform, she traveled extensively. Audiences everywhere marveled at her voice. When she travelled In the South, she was introduced to the indignities of the Jim Crow laws. Finding a place to stay, a place to eat, and a place to perform was difficult. However, Anderson seemed to feel that dealing with segregation in the South was just the price of being able to sing for Southern audiences. Above all, she loved to sing.

Anderson worked with three vocal coaches, and even after she stopped needing coaches, she still critiqued her own performances and tried to learn from what she felt she had done well and from what she felt she had not done well. She spent extended periods of time in Europe in order to learn the languages of her repertoire. She performed for Heads of State, for Kings and for Queens in Europe.

Back in the United States, in the spring of 1939, Anderson wanted to perform in Washington DC. All venues except Constitution Hall were too small for the expected audience. The Daughters of the American Revolution owned Constitution Hall and had a strict policy forbidding African-Americans to perform at the Hall. Anderson had performed for President and Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House, but she could not perform at Constitution Hall, in spite of pleas from dignitaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Harold Ickes, the Interior Secretary.  Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR. On Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson gave a free concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 people came to hear her sing. The concert became a model for protest events throughout the civil rights movement. Marian Anderson didn’t intend to be a figure in the civil rights movement. She only wanted to be a singer. But after the concert at the Lincoln Memorial she joined the NAACP and became one of their most effective fundraisers.

Freedman’s research is impressive. He deftly weaves together Anderson’s career and the civil rights movement. Photographs set the context.

Marian Anderson is a role model for any artist struggling to learn and perfect their art, and for any person of color seeking to work in this country where segregation hasn’t disappeared.

Blog Reviews:

Maw Books Blog
Orange Marmalade
Teacher Will Run for Books

Professional Reviews:

Through the Looking Glass Children’s Book Reviews

Book Trailer:

Marian Anderson Singing:

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

Ave Maria



Crow by Barbara Wright.  Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012.  320 pages.  Publisher recommends for ages 10 and up.  ISBN: 9780375873676.Crow

The only successful coup d’état in American history occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898.  In that year a white mob took control of the city by force, whisking away its democratically elected integrated government.

Crow tells the story of Wilmington in 1898 through Moses Thomas, a 12-year-old boy from a black middle-class family.  In the first half of the book Moses tells us about his day-to-day life.  We learn about Moses mother, who loves music and works as a maid. We learn about Moses grandmother, Boo Nanny, who was a slave until she was 30. And we learn about Moses father, a college educated writer at the Wilmington Daily Record, the only black daily newspaper in the South. Moses father is also an alderman in the city government. Moses tells us about his friend Lewis, and what happens when he borrows Lewis’s bicycle. We see him try to keep a job picking okra, only to lose it because he tells the truth.  We see him becoming friends with a white boy named Tommy, and watch as they explore tunnels under the city. The narrative takes over from the vignettes by the time Moses and his father take a train to Fayetteville. When they arrive in Fayetteville, they find themselves in the middle of a white supremacist rally. By the end of the narrative, the government of Wilmington has been forcibly removed by white supremacists.

Democracy is of fundamental importance to Moses father. He views the right to vote as a sacred requirement and he and Moses worked together to encourage blacks to vote. Moses’ father expounds on the value of democracy even as he and other members of the existing government in Wilmington are put on a train by the white mob and exiled from Wilmington.

We have just witnessed a presidential inauguration in this country.   An inauguration is, in a way, a symbol of our democracy. It’s a peaceful transfer of power which comes about as a result of an election. This is basic to our country. I had no idea power had ever changed hands as a result of violence in the United States. Crow is a powerful cautionary tale.

The Lions of Little Rock

The Lions of Little RockThe Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.  Putnum Juvenile, 2012.  304 Pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10 and above.  ISBN: 9780399256448.

Marlee stands on the high dive at her local pool in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958. She’s almost 13 years old, and she’s afraid to jump. Her 16-year-old sister helps her climb down the ladder. Marlee is afraid of heights and she’s afraid of talking to people. She speaks freely to her family, but not to people outside her family.  A new girl at school, Liz, befriends Marlee and helps her to increase the number of people she’s willing to talk to.

The Lions of Little Rock is historical fiction. It is set four years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v The Board of Education that American schools should not be segregated.  In Little Rock, the 1958-59 school year is called The Lost Year.  It’s the year after the Little Rock Nine, nine black students, were escorted into Little Rock’s Central High School by Federal troops.  In 1958-59 the Governor of Arkansas and the Little Rock School District have decided to solve the problem of integration by simply refusing to open four of the high schools in Little Rock.

As the story progresses, Marlee becomes more and more troubled about segregation.  It’s a highly volatile issue, at times even dividing Marlee’s family.  At the suggestion of her Sunday School teacher, Marlee joins a group of women who are working to re-open the four high schools that have been closed. She also faces down a segregationist who is antagonizing her.

Grassroots politics were pivotal at this time in Little Rock’s history.  We watch as Marlee and her parents become more and more politically involved, and as decisions made at a higher level affect what happens at the grassroots level.

The story, told in first person, moves back and forth between politics and Marlee’s own struggles to be more courageous.  Friends come and go both at school and at home. Marlee becomes more adept at dealing with the absence of friends, just as she becomes more adept at making new ones.

There is an extensive Author’s Note at the end of the book. The note discusses The Lost Year. Following the note, there are citations for several books that contain more information about the year.

The story moves quickly, with short chapters. There’s a lot of action to pack into this book if it’s going to tell the story of the lost year through Marlee’s eyes.  The Lions of Little Rock succeeds quite well.