The Rita Coburn-directed documentary will explore the pioneering singer's life, art, and legacy.

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A new documentary will celebrate the legacy of Marian Anderson (1897-1993), a legendary opera singer and civil rights icon. The film, which will explore Anderson’s life, art, and career, has the working title Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands and is directed by the Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Rita Coburn. The documentary will be a part of Thirteen’s American Masters series and is being produced by Philip Gittelman Productions and Black Public Media.

Anderson’s mastery of her art—the conductor Arturo Toscanini said hers was a voice that appeared “once in a hundred years”—along with a trailblazing and barrier-breaking career in an era marked by racism and segregation made her one of the most significant voices of the 20th century. As a contralto, Anderson’s repertoire included classical music, popular songs, and spirituals. She made her debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1925, performed at the White House in 1936, and in 1955 became the first African American singer to perform a starring role at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

Marian Anderson
Credit: Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images

According to PBS, “With unprecedented access to the Marian Anderson Estate, the documentary will draw on rare archival footage and audio recordings and Anderson’s extensive personal correspondence to family and friends, including Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Shirley Chisholm and Langston Hughes, to reveal the woman behind the icon.”

Anderson is perhaps best known for her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, which took place on Easter Sunday in 1939. It was held outdoors after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson use of Washington’s Constitution Hall. Over 75,000 people attended the performance. “It was a bold protest against racial intolerance […]. In that moment, Anderson—despite being a fiercely private person—transformed into a symbol for the nascent civil rights movement, even inspiring a 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who listened on the radio,” writes PBS.

During the concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson sang “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee),” “O mio Fernando,” from Donizetti’s La favorite, “Ave Maria,” by Franz Schubert, “Gospel Train,” arranged by Henry Burleigh, “Trampin’,” by Edward Boatner, and “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord,” arranged by Florence Price. You can hear an archival recording of Anderson’s performance at pbs.org.

Marian Anderson
Credit: Walter Sanders/Getty Images

It’s hard to overstate the impact Anderson had—and her legacy continues to have—both in the opera house and in the world. Learn more about the forthcoming documentary at pbs.org, and listen to Anderson speak about her experiences in her own words in a 1957 archival recording at wnyc.org.

Which musical icons would you like to learn more about? Keep an eye out for more information about the upcoming Marian Anderson documentary, including an eventual premiere date.