The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights is a biography written by Russell Freedman (2004). Freedman (2004) constructed an 8-chapter nonfiction book about the life of Marian Anderson, born in 1897, passed in 1993. Marian Anderson was an African American girl who was passionate about singing from a young age. She sang in a church choir, community events, and at benefits as well. As Anderson grew older, she became aware of the inequalities that existed due to the color of one’s skin. With the help of her church and public singing opportunities, Anderson was able to afford voice lessons, high school, and college. Marian Anderson began travelling for performances, won a singing competition, and performed in concerts. Anderson even traveled to Europe to study music, became quite popular, and returned to the U.S. where her popularity grew as well. Still struggling with segregation, Anderson was denied a concert in the Constitution Hall, but performed at the Lincoln Memorial instead, defying racial discrimination and injustices. This occurrence even caused Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution); DAR would later ask Anderson to sing for war relief during World War II, allowing an unsegregated audience. In her 40s, Anderson married Orpheus Fisher, and continued on with her demanding career. Anderson went on to perform at many more influential concerts, including a performance during the Civil Rights March. Upon retiring, Marian Anderson continued with speeches at conservatories, ceremonies, and colleges. Anderson received several awards, and was also widely known for her influence on the journey toward equal rights.
When considering the quality of Freedman’s multicultural (2004) biography, the facts follow smoothly with the story line, and Anderson’s experiences are vivid, detailed, accurate, and related to her accomplishments (Galda, Cullinan, & Sipe, 2010). Freedman (2004) also avoided personal opinions, and kept the material to his subject, Marian Anderson, and her life events. The author also displays his character as multidimensional, and touches on many areas of her life; Freedman (2004) not only included her moments of strength, both those of weakness and doubt as well (Galda et al., 2010). The biography is also written in a style that keeps the reader engaged and wanting to see what Anderson accomplished next. The biography encompassed Anderson’s childhood into adulthood, music, locations, and civil rights; Freedman (2004) explained all topics adequately, allowing the reader to understand who Anderson was, what she was doing, and where she was doing each event. Though the civil rights, segregation, and discrimination are delicate subjects, Freedman (2004) “honestly portrayed” the events “in a way that is understandable to children without being overwhelming” (Galda et al., 2010, p. 289).
Within the biography, Freedman (2004) also provides a variety of photographs that illustrate the life of Marian Anderson. Though Anderson’s life is interesting enough to simply read, the photographs allow an individual to visualize the place and time in which she lived (Galda et al., 2010). Each photograph included is in black and white, allowing readers to realize how far back the struggle for equal rights dated. Freedman (2004) does not only include photos of Anderson, but those with her family, voice coaches, historical figures and landmarks, significant life events, concerts, programs, segregation signs, recital posters, newspaper clippings, and more. Each photograph also illuminates who Anderson was as an individual, as “she never took her popularity for granted,” because “If these people believed in me as an artist…then I could venture to be a better one” (Freedman, 2004, p. 39).
"1939 Let Freedom Sing:" Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC
As an individual, parent, and future educator, I am very happy that I was able to read and reflect upon this biography. Marian Anderson not only displayed courage in her ability to enforce equal rights, but also her determination to become a singer, with a work ethic that never faltered. I feel that this book would be influential for students in grades 6 and up. I felt as though I was knowledgeable on struggles before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement, but it is absolutely inspiring to know that Marian Anderson had such a significant impact during the struggle. I feel that most classrooms simply focus on Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and several others, but Ms. Anderson most definitely should be included. Anderson did encounter struggles, whether through being denied applications to school, the right to sing in the Constitution Hall, or having segregated audiences, but her voice was able to assist her in moving the nation.
Russell Freedman, the author of The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights, did not begin as a book writer for children. After college, he worked as an editor and reporter for the Associated Press (Scholastic Inc., 2013). Such work did, however, help Freedman get into the art of research and displaying information that the public would read. When writing books, Freedman focuses on topics of interest, or those that he wishes to learn about; he also travels to gain inspiration for book topics. Freedman has written several nonfiction books including Lincoln: a Photobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt: a Life of Discovery, and The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (Scholastic, Inc., 2013).
Below are 2 motivational activities and reader response questions that would be beneficial for students within the classroom:
1. The first activity would be a task of reflection and writing for 7th and 8th graders. After having read Freedman’s (2004) biography, I would ask the students this: “If you were Marian Anderson, would you have done anything differently during your lifetime?” This task would allow students to reflect upon Anderson’s life, her triumphs, failures, and her part in the struggle for equal rights. Students would be required to complete an essay discussing what he or she would have done differently, and which events led up to this decision. Following essay completion, a class discussion would be scheduled to reflect upon the students’ decisions and thought processes.
Events to think about:
· After waiting in line to apply for school, she was denied a form due to the color of her skin (p. 12-13)
· Her encounter with the Jim Crow laws (p. 15)
· Turning down a marriage proposal for her career (p. 18)
· After receiving harsh criticism following a concert (p. 25)
· After being banned from the DAR at Constitution Hall, & then asked by DAR to sing later (p. 47; 72)
· Concert at Lincoln Memorial (p. 57)
· Refusing to sing unless no segregation in audience (p. 72)
· Marrying Orpheus Fisher (p. 75)
2. In the 2nd activity, students will be choosing a person of choice/interest. Following a lesson on biographies and the reading of The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights, students will be doing his or her own research on the chosen individual. Students will be given time to research his or her individual, and time to complete a written copy of the biography. Students are also encouraged to collect photographs that will be used for the end-product. After the papers are typed, students will attach the biography and photos to a cardboard display. Each project will be displayed at conferences.
Reader Response Questions:
1. What emotions did Freedman’s (2004) biography provoke? Why?
2. Are there any portions of the biography that surprised you? Which and why?
3. What purpose does Freedman have for writing the biography about Marian Anderson?
Both of the above motivational activities align with the Saint Leo Core Value of Respect (Saint Leo University, 1889). Activity 1 not only exposes students to the life of Marian Anderson, but it also allows students to think critically about her experiences, one’s personal values, and to decide what one would have done differently (if anything). The strength of the classroom and the community depend upon diversity; with this, students are able to make choices on what he or she would have done differently, and still have the class acknowledge and accept the student’s decision (unity). Activity 2 will give students a chance to choose a person of interest, and display his or her findings to the class. Each student possesses unique ideas, talents, and interests, and these will all be displayed by one’s excellent work in a biography. Students will not only be respecting one’s classmates, but also the individuals that he or she has written about. One student may have decided that Marian Anderson should not have sang at all until audience segregation was abolished, and another student may choose to research and write about a controversial subject such as Adolf Hitler; no matter the students’ choice, the class with respect, reflect upon, and encourage the learning of one’s classmates.
Freedman, R. (2004). The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle
for Equal Rights. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Galda, L., Cullinan, B.E., Sipe, L. R. (2010). Literature and the Child (7th ed.). Belmont, CA:
McAvoy, T. D. (1939). “1939 Let Freedom Sing.” [online image]. Retrieved from
Saint Leo University. (1889). Saint Leo University: Mission & Values. Retrieved from
Scholastic Inc. (2013). Biography: Russell Freedman. Retrieved from
Scholastic Inc. (2013). “The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle
for Equal Rights”. [online image]. Retrieved from