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Reading, Race, and "Robert's Rules of Order"

The book was an especially formal response to the complications of white supremacy, segregated democracy, and civil war.

The ties between race and Robert’s Rules returned with a vengeance only a few years later while Henry’s daughter-in-law, Sarah Corbin Robert, was a “trustee” of Robert’s Rules of Order—which she would edit and thoroughly revise in 1970—and the president-general of the ultraconservative Daughters of the American Revolution.

In January 1939, Charles Cohen, chairman of Howard University’s concert series, contacted the DAR and sought to reserve Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, for an Easter Sunday concert by Marian Anderson. The singer had worked with Toscanini and Sibelius, and performed to great acclaim throughout the US and Europe for over a decade. Referring to a “white artists only” clause that they had inserted into their standard rental contract in 1932, the DAR refused to allow Anderson to perform. Although they claimed that such a clause was common among Washington venues, it was, in fact, “not at all compelled by local custom. The exclusion of black performers was an extreme measure for the city of Washington.”

Following several protests, which would culminate with Eleanor Roosevelt’s public resignation from and condemnation of the group, Robert “convened the [DAR] Board of Management, persuaded them … that no exception could be made for Anderson as far as the ‘white artists only’ clause was concerned, and won a victory of 39 to 1.” With the committee and its rules behind her, Robert wrote to Anderson in terms that were both morally grotesque and procedurally correct: “The artistic and musical standing of Miss Marian Anderson is not involved in any way. In view of the existence of provisions in prevailing agreements with other organizations and concert bureaus, and the policy which has been adopted in the past, an exception cannot be made in this instance.” She was, she argued, just following the rules.

“In light of the D.A.R.’s history throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s,” writes Allan Keiler, “these explanations on the part of the president-general seem like high comedy.” “Here,” he continues, “was an organization that was portraying itself as helplessly restricted by prevailing policy, swallowed up by social and political forces over which they could hardly be expected to have any control or impact. Yet here was an organization whose leadership had for years circulated a blacklist of all those who opposed the D.A.R.’s views, that had testified before congressional committees in support of anti-liberal legislation, that had summarily expelled members who disagreed openly with D.A.R. policy.” Despite what Robert and the DAR had done with their rules, Anderson did perform in Washington that Easter, singing not in Constitution Hall but rather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 and to millions more over the radio.