Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Alexander M. Rivera, November 30, 2001. Interview C-0297. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Covering Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial

Rivera describes Marian Anderson's concert in Washington, D.C., as the first major event he covered as a photojournalist. Following the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow Anderson to sing at Constitutional Hall because she was African American, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to have a public concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. For Rivera, this event and his coverage of it served as a harbinger for his long career of documenting civil rights struggles over the course of the civil rights movement. In a different interview, Rivera says that a photograph he took at this event was among his favorites from his career.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Alexander M. Rivera, November 30, 2001. Interview C-0297. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

No, at what point, about how long, I know you had covered one of the early stories was the Marian Anderson story.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
That wasn't until 1938-39.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Okay, so that was significantly later.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
I was about ready to leave Washington and come down here and go to school. It was a big story. I was assigned to cover it because first of all I could write and also take pictures. I was one of the early photojournalists, black in the country. There weren't very many. Most of the fellows would either write or take pictures. See you have to understand the development of photography had not produced the thirty-five millimeters for us around here. We were still using the () and C() cameras. It was just a big box. So it was cumbersome. You had to carry it around and so forth. That's what I was using. I was using the ( ). As time went on of course the cameras got smaller and more diverse and easier to handle, more versatile. But so they had asked me to go to Baltimore get on the train. Of course the train came, Marian Anderson was coming from New York. We knew that. I was to get on the train in Baltimore and interview her. So I would have the first interview coming into Washington. I would already have it. So I went to Baltimore and got on. So I asked one of the conductors was Miss Marian Anderson on this train. He said - train coming from New York. He said, 'Yes.' So I jumped on the train and the train started out from Washington. I found out she wasn't even on the train. My first big assignment I was about to blow it. In fact I figured I had already blown it. But the trains were very close, and another train was coming in from New York, was very close. So when I got to the train station in Washington, I just stayed there. When she got off the train, I asked her a few quick questions and took a picture of her. I covered myself very well. Then she had a rehearsal at the Lincoln Memorial. She had a rehearsal that afternoon, that morning for the afternoon concert. So I found out about the rehearsal. The trip wasn't altogether lost. I went to the Washington Memorial to the rehearsal with her. There I met Tom Macavoy. Tom Macavoy was a Life reporter. So we got a chance to chat.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Now by the time you interviewed her at the Washington station had the controversy already taken place?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Oh, the controversy ran almost, it ran for months. This was a solution. She was coming to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. This was a solution that was brought about by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and [ Harold] Ickes who was secretary. So they decided that she couldn't sing at Constitution Hall, she'd sing at the -
KIERAN TAYLOR:
The memorial
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
The memorial. That's the same memorial that King, in front of which King spoke. Oh yeah it had run for months and months. Of course in the first place you see she was a nationally known singer, and Howard University was promoting her. They didn't think they'd have a problem. The only place really large enough to house the concert was the DAR.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
The DAR, yeah.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
So Mrs. Roosevelt being a member. She got upset when they decided that they couldn't have them, and she withdrew her membership. She wrote a column called, 'My Day'. In her column she denounced it there, and a lot of her friends who were also members of the DAR pulled out. But the actual concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial was the solution I think. It had been running hot and heavy for months. Ever since the DAR said no, it ran immediately papers and all.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So you attended the actual concert as well.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Oh yeah.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Were you taking photographs at the concert?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Yeah.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Wow.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
I've got a picture that's run all over and everything, famous picture of her singing.